As many as 4,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles may be on the world market now thanks to the collapse of the Hussein regime
Last month, much ado was made about the missing 380 tons of explosives from Al Qaqaa. And I still believe it should have been, given the extent to which the insurgent makes use of high explosives. Still, it's clear that those missing truckloads were a mere drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands
of explosives on the streets of Iraq — including thousands of missing artillery shells that have been quite readily converted into improvised explosive devices.
Enter this alarming story by Dana Priest and Bradley Graham of the Washington Post
, which is inexplicably buried on A24 of the Sunday edition for some reason. (The NYT first reported
this on Saturday; The Post editors probably don't want to overhype another Al Qaqaa-style story.) Apparently, the thousands of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles formerly owned by the Hussein regime's military have gone missing — and no one really knows where they are, whether they've been destroyed, whether they're on the global black market, or in use today by Iraqi insurgents looking to bag an American Blackhawk helicopter.
Several thousand shoulder-fired missiles — the kind that could be used to shoot down aircraft — are missing in Iraq, and their disappearance has prompted U.S. military and intelligence analysts to increase sharply their estimate of the number of such weapons that may be at large, administration officials said yesterday.
Some U.S. analysts figure that as many as 4,000 surface-to-air missiles once under the control of Saddam Hussein's government remain unaccounted for. That would raise the number of such missiles outside government hands worldwide to about 6,000.
But a senior defense official said yesterday that military intelligence analysts are having difficulty estimating just how many of the portable missiles may have vanished and how many of those may be in working order and therefore a threat to U.S. and other aircraft.
"We don't have a good estimate," the official said. "Some have put forward some figures, but there is none that the Defense Intelligence Agency has confidence in."
Another official said government analysts could not say with any certainty whether the missing weapons remain in Iraq or have been smuggled outside the country. "There is no evidence that they have left the country," he said.
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The U.S.-led invasion forces did not secure all weapons depots in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions were looted. U.S. officials fear that the shoulder-launched missiles were among the items carried off by groups willing to sell them on the black market to terrorist organizations.
Western intelligence officials have repeatedly warned of al Qaeda's desire to acquire the missiles for use against American and other airliners. The weapons are easy to hide and cost relatively little — from less than $1,000 to $100,000 each.
On Saturday, Douglas Jehl and David Sanger provided a little more background
in the NYT on the extent of the problem, and why the numbers have just come to light:
The new estimate by American intelligence agencies was described by government officials who had access to the classified intelligence report. They said the tripling of the number represented the first formal effort to determine how unaccounted Iraqi stockpiles may have compounded the surface-to-air missile threat. Only several hundred shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles from the Iraqi arsenals have been turned in to American forces in a buyout program, the government officials said.Analysis
A Defense Department official said Friday that more than one million shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles had been produced since the weapons were first manufactured in the 1950's, with 20 countries producing more than 35 different types of weapons. According to the accountability office study, 500,000 to 750,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles are still believed to be in the worldwide inventory. Many of the older missiles are militarily obsolete and have been destroyed.
Until the invasion of Iraq, many of the shoulder-fired weapons believed to be outside government controls were those provided by the United States and its allies to mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan to assist in their resistance against Soviet forces during the 1980's. Those weapons included American-made Stinger and British-made Blowpipe missiles, but by December 2002, American-led forces in Afghanistan had captured more than 5,000 of the missiles from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, according to news reports at the time.
: Let's be clear here. The Al Qaqaa story was bad. This story is worse. High explosives are not a good thing to have on the streets of Baghdad, let alone the streets of Paris or New York. But they're relatively uncontrolled items, and it'd be very hard to eliminate the supplies of high explosives around the world. Surface-to-air missiles, on the other hand, are quite different. They are highly controlled items, and a few thousand more SAMs on the black market can be a huge deal.
Al Qaeda has used SAMs in the past, and made significant efforts to acquire SAMs for future operations. Al Qaeda retains significant SAM training and experience from the U.S.-backed operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when we supplied them with shoulder-fired Stinger SAMs. The use of these missiles to shoot down military and civilian aircraft remains one of the favorite tactics in the "Afghan Arab" arsenal. And now, there are apparently three times as many SAMs on the global market as before, thanks in large part to the collapse of the Hussein regime.
There is insufficient evidence at this point to say these missiles were lost due to U.S. neglience or deliberate indifference. I could rehash all the arguments
for not having enough boots on the ground, but that's not really the issue here. My bet is that control of these items was lost as a result of the Hussein regime's collapse — not the U.S. efforts to secure the peace. Once the Hussein regime lost its grip on Iraq, field commanders saw these missiles as a way to make some cold hard cash. And so they absconded with them. To date, there have been some efforts to find them, or buy them back, but if you're a former Iraqi military guy, and you have the choice between making a few hundred bucks from a legal turn-in versus thousands of dollars on the black market, what're you going to choose?
Ultimately, what this signifies is another example of the Iraq war contributing in negative
terms to the global war on terrorism, and the global counter-proliferation efforts for conventional weapons. These missiles went missing because of our war in Iraq; the destruction of Iraqi accountability over these weapons was collateral damage of a sort. And in the future, we will likely see these missiles used against us, either in Iraq or abroad if we're unfortunate enough that these missiles make their way into the global black market.
Fortunately, there's no evidence of that yet — no one in the U.S. government is saying that these missiles have left Iraq. But as Don Rumsfeld is fond of saying, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We should probably redouble our counter-proliferation efforts as a result of the Iraq war generally, because so many weapons have been put on the street as a result of combat there. Small arms, high explosives, shoulder-fired missiles, tank rounds, et cetera — it's all on the street, available to the highest bidder. It would certainly be in our interest to make this a priority effort, and to work with our allies on bolstering the international conventional weapons counter-proliferation system.
: Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, has some thoughts
on this subject over at that magazine's weblog. Also see this April 2003 Washington Monthly article
by Soyoung Ho on the SAM threat.