This article first appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune Nov. 11, 2004.
At the first presidential debate, President Bush declared that "the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network." But as casualties mount in Iraq, it is obvious that the greatest current threat to American soldiers comes not from exotic bio-weapons cooked up in tractor trailer labs or barrages of scud missiles loaded with deadly nerve agents, but from the vast quantities of conventional weapons – guns, missiles and explosives – within easy reach of terrorists and insurgents. It is explosives and AK-47s, not anthrax, that are sending Americans home in body bags.
The urgency of the conventional weapons threat was underscored by the "October Surprise" from Iraq: the disappearance of 380 tons of high explosives – some of it under the seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency – from the al-Qaqaa weapons facility. The fate of the 760,000 pounds of stable, deadly explosive materials is still unknown, but there is a good possibility that at least some of it – along with thousands of small arms and light weapons pilfered from sites across Iraq – is now in the hands of unidentified individuals with unknown, possibly nefarious, intentions.
While Iraq is an extreme case, leakage of surplus government weapons into the black market is not uncommon. Many countries possess thousands of surplus small arms that they no longer want and cannot adequately protect. Each year, some ask the United States for help destroying these weapons, and each year we oblige. Through the State Department's Small Arms/Light Weapons Program, the United States has helped at least 13 countries destroy more than 700,000 excess weapons, including thousands of deadly shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
Dollar for dollar, the State Department's program provides as much security as any other defense or foreign aid initiative. Surface-to-air missiles can be destroyed for as little as $100 per unit. Yet it continues to be the neglected stepchild of U.S. security investments, surviving on a shoestring while the government heaps money on high profile weapons development. In 2004, for example, the destruction program received a mere $3 million. That's less than 2 percent of the cost of a single F-22 "Raptor" fighter plane
The State Department's small arms destruction program is in danger of being short-changed again next year. In July, the House of Representatives voted to fund only $3 million of the State Department's $9 million request for 2005. Since the Senate voted for full funding, the final amount will probably be determined when Congress returns for a lame duck session later this month. It is vitally important that the $9 million request be fully funded.
The need to fund the entire request is underscored by recent arms trafficking in America's own backyard. In 2001, an arms dealer based in Guatemala successfully duped the Nicaraguan government into selling him 3,000 surplus AK-47 assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition. The Nicaraguans thought the guns were destined for the Panamanian National Police. Instead, they were packed underneath crates marked "plastic balls" and shipped by boat to Turbo, Colombia, where they were delivered to a Colombian group on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Even before the AK-47 deal was completed, the arms traffickers submitted another request. This time their intended clients were West African gun smugglers, and the list of weapons included surface-to-air missiles. Fortunately, the deal fell through.
Disaster was averted – this time. But what about next time? What will happen if the State Department is denied the $300,000 it has requested to help the Nicaraguans destroy their surplus weapons?
Commenting on the lack of prewar intelligence on Iraq's small arms stockpiles, a defense intelligence official admitted, "We're just not resourced for small arms. They tend to fall through the cracks." Too often the same can be said about small arms as a national security policy priority. It is time that the programs that successfully address this problem start receiving the resources they need.
By Matthew Schroeder and Rachel Stohl