by Ankit Malhotra*
The United States of America (hereinafter, United States or America(n)) has left Afghanistan and given the Taliban a gift – its war-chest. This includes state-of-the-art helicopters, attack planes, rifles, and machine guns – the most advanced American weapons. This is not the first time that the United States has done this as its track record shows that it is a repeat offender when it comes to arming terror groups and rogue regimes. Sometimes by design and sometimes by default, America continues to feed the global war machine. American weapons are being used to undermine what American governments say they are fighting for – international peace and security. While weapons sale has always been integral to America’s foreign policy for decades, sometimes Washington has sold arms and ammunition without even notifying US Congress or the American public.
An age-old Practice
This trend began in the 1970s at the height of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, when the Nixon Administration started shipping weapons to counter Soviet expansion. The policy was called the Nixon Doctrine the aim was to substitute American weapons for American boots. In other words, send weapons to allies instead of sending troops to their lands.
This led to a tenfold expansion in arms sales as the United States shipped weapons to countries like Ethiopia, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Iran. In the case of Iran, the United States sold billions of dollars of weapons to the Shah of Iran during the 1970s. This sale included everything from cargo planes to supersonic interceptors, phantom bombers, and surface-to-surface missiles. Iran bought a total of 15 billion dollars of the most advanced U.S. weapons. Half a century ago, the American foreign policy was motivated by protecting its oil supply from Iran and staving off Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf. This policy suffered an extreme blow-back in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran and it went from being a monarchy to the Islamic Republic. Or in other words, from an American ally to an adversary. The new regime took control of all these American weapons and used them against the Americans.
Something similar happened in Panama. For most of the 20th Century, Panama was an American ally and a recipient of billions of dollars’ worth of military assistance and a major base for the American military in 1989. Thereafter, General Manuel Noriega, a CIA asset for 20 years, came to power and threatened American interests. This prompted an American invasion: a clash that featured American troops facing American weapons. This is the flip side of indiscriminate arms sales but Washington has not changed course.
Some other instances of the aforesaid are:
- In the 1980s, the U.S. sold weapons to Iraq to keep a check on Iran only to end up confronting Iraq after it annexed Kuwait.
- America sold missiles and tanks to Somalia only to launch a military intervention in Somalia in 1992.
- In Afghanistan, the United States armed the Mujahideen to help them fight Soviet troops. In 2001, it invaded Afghanistan to fight the Taliban which was a product of America’s supporter, the Mujahideen, and complicit in Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.
Even after 9/11, America’s approach did not change. Instead, the U.S. went into an overdrive. It sold weapons to everyone in the name of bringing peace and stability. As per the 2020 Arms Sales Risk Index, United States has sold conventional weapons worth almost 200 billion dollars to 167 countries around the world. Many of America’s clients are autocratic with long records of human rights violations. They are also infamous for violently suppressing democratic dissent. As per the readings of the 2020 Arms Sales Risk Index score is based on the stability of the regime, how the government treats its people, and if the country is involved in conflicts at home or abroad. The ranges from the countries being risk-averse or free.
Profit Maximisation- America First, Always
All the aforementioned countries own American weapons. A country such as Saudi Arabia, which is currently embroiled in military operations in Yemen, Tunisia, and Syria, has a track record of human rights violations and is the opposite of a democratic country. However, the Gulf state is a prized American client for its weapons.
What one may accrue from this immoral practice of profit maximization is that the United States promotes conflicts rather than stability. It does so to fuels wars with its weapons. This United States foreign policy remains steady irrespective of who’s in power – the Democrats or the Republicans. For all its tall claims of getting the United States out of global conflicts, former United States President Donald Trump signed arms deals at a record pace, thereby generating hundreds of billions of dollars for the American defence companies and contractors. In 2017, he cut a deal worth 110 billion US Dollars with the Saudi Arabia alone, along with 157 other deals worth more than 84 billion US Dollars to 42 other countries. He may have been against sending America to war but he ensured the coffers of the American war machine do not dry up. In one such communication he went as far as to say, “tremendous investments into the United States and our military community is very happy. We want to thank you and Saudi Arabia… Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs and jobs”. The only difference between all the former US Presidents and Donald Trump is that Trump said so explicitly while others did not. From Richard Nixon to Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy Carter, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, from George Bush to Barack Obama, and currently Joe Biden, all of them have made it clear in policy documents that economic benefits from weapons sale is the biggest consideration while approving defence sales. It is about business, and it also is about influence.
Arms sales bring strategic gains for the United States. This is achieved in a three-pronged approach. Firstly, they shift regional balance in favour of American interests. Secondly, they help, exert influence and leverage over countries that buy American arms. Thirdly, they give America access to overseas military bases to maintain shadow supremacy. For good measure, as another reason, let us also consider how this helps America build pressure on client countries to vote with/ in favour of the United States at the United Nations. This strategy has made the United States the global hub of arms trade as it accounts for 33% share of the global arms trade; followed by Russia which has 23%; which is followed by countries such as China, France, and Germany.
Given the above, it merits a serious consideration as to how do these countries use these American weapons. The answer is that, while most of them use them against their adversaries, some of the countries use them against their own population as well. There’s glaring evidence to establish as to how American arms sales have had economic, political, and social repercussions; how they’ve led to humanitarian violations, atrocities, organized crime, and acts of violence in recipient countries. The arms bonanza handed over to the Taliban is just the tip of the iceberg as this is not the first time American weapons have fallen into the hands of non-state actors.
In 2014, the American air-dropped weapons and supplies on the Syrian border town of Kobani. The weapons were meant for Kurdish fighters, but they ended up in the hands of ISIS. ISIS even released a video thanking Washington for the gifts. In 2019, an investigation revealed that arms provided by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia and the UAE ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and a variety of terror outfits in Afghanistan.
In the same year, another investigation revealed that American-made weaponry had fallen into the hands of rival militia groups in Yemen. These groups used American weapons against the U.S.-backed government in Yemen. While the list is long, short point is that when a country make a habit of arming rogue regimes and non-state actors then it is that country which is the biggest threat to the world, and not the people who wield the weapons. The United States cannot claim to promote human rights while selling weapons to human rights violators; it cannot claim to safeguard regional security while actively intensifying regional conflicts. The United States definitely cannot claim to be the torchbearer of peace, stability, and democracy while also being the biggest arms dealer in the world. Since world peace does not suit the American defence industry, the cycle of war continues.
*Ankit Malhotra is currently reading law at Jindal Global University and is the President and Co-Founder of the Jindal Society of International Law.