This article was co-published with Time Magazine.
The Pentagon has spent billions of dollars since 2001 funneling roughly more than a million assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, and machine guns into Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to fuel lasting conflict there, according to a new report by a London-based nonprofit research and advocacy group Action on Armed Violence.
At least 949,582 of these small arms were given to security forces in Iraq, and at least 503,328 small arms were given to local forces in Afghanistan, the group said. They called this an “under-estimate” based on the information they were able to acquire.
If the figures are correct, the US exports amounted to more than one small arm for each member of Afghanistan’s security forces, which totaled roughly 355,000 soldiers, police, and airmen in February 2015, according to a NATO operational update on the force. The number of armaments sent to Iraq also vastly exceeded the current size of that country’s active military and paramilitaries - 209,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2016 Military Balance report.
Until now, the Pentagon hasn’t published such a tally of its own, so the group’s researchers spent a year scouring multiple databases to arrive at its estimate: a general Pentagon contract list, a government-wide contracting list, and multiple government reports on military spending. They finally calculated that the overall value of the contractually-agreed small arms shipments, just to those two countries, was roughly $2.16 billion.
U.S. intelligence reports and eyewitnesses have previously said that a significant fraction of the U.S.-financed arms were either lost or stolen, and that many wound up in the hands of forces opposed to US interests, including terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, or ISIS.
In 2007, for example, the General Accountability Office said the coalition forces in Iraq could not account for 190,000 U.S.-supplied weapons. A July 2014 audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction sharply criticized the Pentagon for not paying adequate attention to the fate of weaponry sent to Afghanistan, citing rampant discrepancies in records of gun serial numbers and other problems. In many instances over the past two years, U.S.-advised forces in those two countries have engaged in protracted clashes with terrorists equipped with captured caches of U.S. small arms, as well as U.S. tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers.
“There are direct and real consequences,” said Iain Overton, a veteran investigative journalist who is the group’s director, including “a destabilized Middle East.” He said Americans believe “that good guys with guns will get rid of bad buys with guns but that system doesn’t work when you throw guns into lawless, anarchic societies.” His group says its funding comes from “governments, institutions, and foundations,” and that it has a “partnership” with Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The report was released as international discussions are under way in Geneva about how to improve the implementation of a 2013 accord meant to provide transparency about small arms transfers, known as the Arms Trade Treaty. While the treaty does not restrict the number or type of weaponry that can be exported, it asks signatories not to sell arms that will create an overwhelming risk of negative consequences, including war crimes and attacks on civilians. The United States has signed the treaty but has not ratified it and is not a state party. As a result, it has not submitted annual reports of its arms transfers to others, as the treaty requires.