Iraq Turns to China for Small Arms
In September 2006, “Up to $750M in Weapons & Support for Iraq” described Iraq’s order for a number of American small arms, as well as helicopters and blast resistant vehicles. A subsequent update to that piece shed more light on the process Iraq used to select US weapons over the Soviet-derived alternatives that are so common in the country as a legacy of the Saddam era. There are some programs to refurbish those weapons, but the new direction seemed clear.
Iraq has just made a request for follow-on equipment, but US small arms manufacturers are finding that it’s hard to keep customers exclusively loyal if you can’t perform. Iraq continues to request US weapons, but the Washington Post reports that Iraq is also preparing to buy over $100 million in Soviet-derived small arms from… China. As the Post article notes:
“The Chinese arms deal sheds light on the larger dispute between the United States and Iraq over rebuilding Iraq’s armed forces and police. Iraqi officials have long complained about the supply of weapons and equipment for their personnel, noting that Iraqi security forces often patrol in pickup trucks without body armor along the same routes as U.S. troops wearing flak jackets and riding in armored vehicles.” There is general frustration in the Iraqi government at the rate in which Iraqi armed forces are being equipped and armed,” Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie told reporters this summer. “This is a collaborative effort between the Iraqi government and the government of the United States, and the process is not moving quickly enough to improve the fighting capacity of Iraqi armed forces. A way must be found to improve this process.”
The article goes on to quote American officials, who admit that just keeping American troops supplied is straining their small arms industrial base. It would seem that a way to improve this process has been found – from the Iraqis’ point of view, anyway.
DID Op-Ed/ Analysis:
As is so frequently the case in Iraq, even the undercurrents have undercurrents. Buying weapons from China enhances a number of possible gambits within Iraq. The first benefit involves freedom from meddling and conditions imposed by one’s arms supplier. Another is the ability to begin creating relationships that give Iraq’s government a potential second patron. Another, darker possibility involves Iraq’s sectarian politics. These possibilities are not mutually exclusive.
The first, obvious benefit offered by the Chinese deal is their lack of meddling as a condition of weapons sales. There have been recent controversies in the USA regarding the government of Iraq’s ability to keep track of the weapons it does receive. A recent a US Government Accountability Office report said that 110,000 weapons were unaccounted for, with about 30% of all arms distributed to Iraqi forces by the United States since 2004 missing.
This is not entirely surprising in a country with a new procurement system, whose political foundations are built on tribal and family loyalties that far supersede loyalty to a unified state. The concern over those missing weapons is based on the worry that many of these weapons have ended up in the hands of insurgents and/or al-Qaeda in Iraq. Given the divided loyalties some areas have previously displayed, Iraq’s black market, and the potential for leverage via direct threats to soldiers’ families, it’s very probable that some have. Many of the others have likely been kept by families and/or tribes, as insurance policies in a troubled land.
American officials have been placing pressure on Iraqi officials and Army members to put more rigorous systems in place that would track and verify the location of all weapons in the Iraqi Army’s care; one of the most obvious pressure points is slowed weapons deliveries until better custodial arrangements can be demonstrated. An Iraqi government interested in putting armed force on the streets according to its own, quicker timetable has just found a logical way to remove even the possibility of American meddling, while side-stepping America’s delivery issues.
The second potential benefit is the opening this creates as a bridgehead for improved relations with China. Chinese geopolitics are heavily driven by its energy needs, and will remain so for the next several decades. This makes them an obvious second choice as a supplier of weapons and security assistance to the Iraqi government. While $100 million for small arms is not a huge deal, it serves as a signal that begins to create incentives for China to support Iraq’s government, in hopes of reaping further lucrative sales or even energy deals down the road.
This is an old game in the Middle East. It remains effective.
The third undercurrent is darker. One of Talabani’s specific complaints concerns the number of Iraq’s police that are not armed. While complaints about under-equipped police are valid, it’s also true that many of those police forces are Shi’ite, with sectarian loyalties to elements such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. To say that this has made them an unreliable force for keeping order is to understate the case.
In many Sunni locations, however, this has become a non-problem. Tribal sheiks who have turned on al-Qaeda due to the foreign occupiers’ brutality responded by sending men into the Army or police forces, then taking them back and sending a second cohort. The net effect is to create tribal security forces that have been extremely effective as a protective cadre for cooperating sheikhs, and even as direct combatants. The net effect of this approach has been to push most Al-Qaeda and allied forces out of Anbar province and the western Sunni triangle – once the most dangerous area in Iraq.
The Shi’ite dominated government of Iraq views these developments with mixed emotions, correctly anticipating that they are a package deal reminiscent of Kurdistan. There, an army of peshmerga have largely secured Kurdish territories, and even implemented what amounts to the Kurds’ own border control policies. While this has been lethal to the local insurgencies, it also ensures that the central government holds little sway in the region, and moves about only with approval from regional elements.
In the Sunnis’ case, however, the implications run deeper. While Iraq is not a civil war, the threat that it could become so factors into the decisions made by every single player.
If the Sunnis are creating effective local forces and arming them, the purchases from China have the potential to serve as an accountability-free way to, in effect, balance the scales. Of course, many of these Shi’ite militias are at best dubiously loyal to the Iraqi government. One possible power play, which could e executed from various levels of authority, would provide Shi’ite sectarian forces with similar toys, without forcing them to use Iran’s weapons supply network. This might begin to change the leverage equation, and hence the locus of control. Another possible power play involves a more cold-blooded calculus, where the dubious loyalties of weapon recipients are seen as an unfortunate but necessary trade-off; if push comes to shove, sectarian loyalties will be what counts anyway.
This is not to say that such motives, and plans, are inevitably behind the Chinese arms sale. What is certain, however, is that all elements within Iraq are working to position themselves against the possibility of abandonment by America. A ground truth fact that makes the potential scenarios outlined above a set of possibilities for all parties on the ground in Iraq to consider, and contend with.
- ABC News – Capt. Travis Patriquin: How to Win in Anbar [PDF format]. Capt. Patriquin was killed in Iraq, but his presentation was so simple that anyone really could understand it – and the strategy worked.
- Michael Totten (Feb 17/06) – Lockdown. Michael encounters the reality of Kurdish border control during one of many trips to Iraq. His reporting covering Iraq’s Kurdish areas remains some of the best of the war, from any outlet.