Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Weapon Proliferation: MANPAD

Obviously when someone goes to war, they need weapons. Humans are tool-creating and tool-using animals, and so when we go to war we think of the tools required to perform the war. Hence, weapons are the tools we use in war.

One type of weapon, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), is of particular interest. They are relatively portable, relatively easy to train soldiers in their use, and very successful in bringing down aircraft. They are often called "shoulder-launched missiles".

In Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror Richard Clarke details how the U.S. coordinated shipping Stinger Missiles to the Mujahadeen fighting in Afghanistan against the Russian invasion. The U.S. could not put its own soldiers into Afghanistan, likely Russia would have taken that as a direct agression which would have turned their invasion in Afghanistan into a direct world-wide confrontation between the worlds super-powers. Instead the U.S. was supporting the Mujahadeen, and arranged for weapons shipments and training. The transfer point for this activity was Pakistan, and U.S. forces were working in Pakistan, fully in cooperation with the Pakistan Intelligence services, to safeguard the training and arming of the Mujahadeen.

It turns out that the leader of the Mujahadeen, chosen from the elite of the Saudi families, was one Osama bin Laden, who has since become infamous for other activities. The result of this activity by the U.S. to arm and train the Mujahadeen was to demonstrate to those fighters that they can fight, attack, and repulse a world super-power. The turning point in the Afghanistan invasion was the mid-1980's. As Clarke said, the Russians were winning and consolidating their control over Afghanistan, which alarmed the U.S. planners. This is what caused the U.S. to take the step of arming the Mujahadeen with Stinger missiles. Over the next few years the Mujahadeen were successful in routing the Russians, causing their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and shortly afterward the U.S.S.R. collapsed.

Obviously these are potent weapons indeed.

Fast forward to 2004, and we (the U.S.) finds MANPAD style weapons being used in Iraq against American forces. It just so happens that the Mujahadeen the U.S. had armed and trained morphed in the intervening years into the Taliban and al Qaeda. While the Taliban and al Qaeda had no contact or cooperation with the former Iraq government, they are active in Iraq today for exactly the same reason they were active in Afghanistan in the 1980's. Namely, the Arab/Islamic homeland has been invaded by outsiders (then it was Russia, today it is the U.S.) and they are fighting off that invasion. In addition the toppling of the former Iraqi government by the U.S. created a power vacuum, which al Qaeda no doubt wants to fill.

This is rich in Irony. The people we trained with those weapons, fight off our then enemy, contributing to the then enemy's collapse, and now those same people are using the same type of weapons to fight us off.

On June 3, 2004 the GAO released a report giving recommendations on the "proliferation" of these MANPAD weapons.

The U.S. has been selling the Stinger missiles to foreign governments, and then failing to adequately control what happens to them afterward. Legally the U.S. is to monitor the weapons, inventorying them every year, presumably to prevent those weapons from being resold. Just as obviously the forces in Iraq fighting the U.S. have these weapons, and are getting them from somewhere. The report talks of a black market.

Of concern also is their use against commercial aircraft. In 2002 a MANPAD was fired at a commercial jet leaving Kenya for Israel, but it missed.

MSNBC report, June 4, 2004: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5137264/

GAO Report: Nonproliferation: Improvements Needed in Countering Threat for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems. GAO-04-519, May 13. Highlights