WHEN THE BUSH administration launched its war in Afghan-istan last year, Pentagon leaders worried that rebels would shoot down American helicopters with portable surface-to-air missiles. How did Taliban fighters get these sophisticated weapons? They were gifts from the CIA, which handed out 1,000 Stinger missiles back in the 1980s, when the now-terrorist Afghanis were ?freedom fighters? battling the Soviet Union. As recently as last spring, the FBI warned that terrorists might use the lightweight missiles to bring down American airliners.
The moral of this story appears to be lost upon the Bush administration. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has stepped up both gifts and sales of advanced weapons as a way to entice reluctant nations to support our military actions, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Jan./Feb. 2003).
In addition to direct aid, the Bush administration has stepped up transfers of ?excess defense articles? worth millions, according to documents examined by the Federation of American Scientists Arms Sales Monitoring Project. Countries also spent billions (much of it special loans or grant money from the United States) on new American-made munitions, weapons, and military aircraft.
Many of the countries on our anti-terrorism gift list would normally be banned from receiving U.S. weapons. Laws dating from World War II forbid the transfer or sale of military gear to governments with ?a consistent pattern of gross violations? of human rights. But the Bush administration has been using various loopholes to arm new allies that often fail to meet those standards.
For instance, the United States has lifted sanctions against arms sales to Tajikistan, an authoritarian regime that ?relies on a handful of commanders who use their forces almost as private armies,? according to a report issued by the Bush State Department. These government forces, the report continues, routinely use torture, beatings, threats, extortion, looting, kidnappings, disappearances, and outright murder. Yet the State Department estimates U.S. aid to Tajikistan in 2003 at $490 million, including $21.5 million earmarked for these same military and police forces.
Other countries receiving military or police aid are not much better. In fact the United States exported weapons in 2001 to 42 countries with ?poor? or ?extremely poor? human rights rankings from the State Department and provided $2 billion in grants and loans for purchasing weapons to countries with similar records.
Laws require the State Department to report to Congress on weapons transfers, and some senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), have raised concerns about human rights abuses.
But the Bush administration would like to find a way to hand out weapons without congressional involvement. Tucked into the Department of Defense supplemental appropriations bill of 2002 were provisions that would have provided $100 million to ?support foreign nations in furtherance of the global war on terrorism? with weapons and training, and an additional $30 million to outfit ?indigenous forces,? such as revolutionary insurgents?all to be spent in secret at the military?s discretion and without oversight from Congress, or even from the administration?s own State Department. The provisions were stripped from the final bill, but the idea is likely to resurface.
All these arms sales and giveaways have been welcome news for the defense industry, which, despite huge sales since the first Gulf War, faces a decline fueled by worldwide recession. Thanks to the giveaways and the build-up for war with Iraq, for instance, Lockheed Martin, the nation?s largest military contractor, reported 2002 sales of $26.6 billion?up 11 percent. ?Growth looks on track,? an analyst told The New York Times; ?they are going to be delivering a lot of combat aircraft over the next two years.?
Joseph Hart is a contributing editor of Utne.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a bimonthly journal that monitors the spread, threat, and social impact of nuclear weapons technology throughout the world. Subscriptions: $28/yr. (6 issues) from 6042 S. Kimbark Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637.