The Taliban’s military victory in Afghanistan promises harsh consequences for the people of that war-torn nation, and calls for a thorough review of the deep flaws that have characterized the United States’ twenty year intervention there. One troubling consequence of recent developments is the Taliban’s inheritance of billions in U.S. weaponry that had been provided to Afghan security forces over the past two decades, from firearms to armored vehicles to military aircraft. This disastrous outcome is far from the first time U.S. arms have ended up with U.S. adversaries, a phenomenon that has been dubbed by some, including this author, as the “boomerang effect.”
The Taliban’s arms bonanza is reminiscent of what occurred in Iran in 1979, when forces inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew that nation’s U.S.-backed dictator, the Shah of Iran. The shah had been a favorite arms client of the United States throughout the 1970s, on the theory that his regime would serve as a U.S. proxy that would help stave off radical movements in the Persian Gulf. Other than one skirmish in Oman, Iran was never actually called upon to fulfil its role as a U.S. surrogate. But the arming of the shah’s military continued apace, including everything from small arms to tanks to top-of-the-line F-14 combat aircraft. The Islamic Republic that replaced the shah’s regime had a hard time keeping the F-14s flying, but its other U.S.-supplied weapons were put to use in its 1980 to 1988 war with Iraq, a nation which itself had benefited from the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. arms and arms technology.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, large quantities of U.S. weaponry ended up in the hands of opposition forces throughout both conflicts. As noted in a recent analysis in Task and Purpose, a 2016 Pentagon audit revealed that poor record-keeping and monitoring had allowed nearly half of the 1.5 million small arms provided to Iraqi and Afghan security forces since 2002 to go missing, including nearly 978,000 M4 and M16 rifles. And a 2014 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction found that 43 percent of weapons provided to Afghan security forces may have ended up in the hands of groups like the Taliban or ISIS.
Furthermore, when ISIS swept through northern Iraq in 2014, it captured substantial amounts of U.S. weaponry from Iraqi forces, from rifles to military vehicles. In Yemen, the 2011 collapse of the Saleh regime, which had received billions in U.S. arms and training during its three decade rule, resulted in leakage of U.S.-supplied equipment to Houthi opposition forces. And as the Yemen war heated up, the United Arab Emirates transferred U.S.-supplied equipment to extremist militias with ties to Al Qaeda, as well as letting some of those arms be captured by the Houthi opposition.
Perhaps the most egregious example of U.S. arms ending up with U.S. adversaries came when individuals and organizations that went on to form Al Qaeda benefited from some of the billions of dollars in weaponry the CIA transferred to Afghan mujihideen during their fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. There was obviously no intention on the part of U.S. policymakers to bolster the emerging terrorist organization, just as U.S. supplies to Afghan security forces were never intended to end up with the Taliban, but war is unpredictable and all too often weapons supplied for one purpose end up being used for other ends, to the detriment of U.S. and global security.
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;What lessons can be drawn from all of the above? First and foremost, the United States should be much more careful in deciding which countries to arm, shying away from regimes that are corrupt, repressive or unstable. One current case in point is Saudi Arabia, which has used billions in U.S.-supplied bombs, missiles, and aircraft to attack targets in Yemen, killing thousands of civilians and sparking the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. The Biden administration started out on a promising note with regard to arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, with the president stating that the U.S. would end U.S. support for “offensive operations” in Yemen as well as “relevant arms sales.” But aside from pausing a few bomb sales to the Saudi regime, the administration has conducted more or less business as usual with Riyadh, even as it cleared the way for a $23 billion offer of F-35 combat aircraft, armed drones, and bombs and missiles to the United Arab Emirates, which bears considerable responsibility for the carnage in Yemen even as it violates a UN embargo on arms to participants in the civil war in Libya. The Biden administration can and must do better in vetting arms sales to unreliable partners – its forthcoming arms transfer policy directive offers an opportunity to do just that. It is an opportunity not to be missed if the long record of the U.S. inadvertently arming its adversaries is to be brought to an end.