The Global Risk of Arming Libya's Rebels

Flooding the country with guns could set off an unpredictable and dangerous chain of events. We've seen it happen before


Andrew Winning/Reuters.

Here's a thought experiment: Setting aside issues of legality and logistics, let's suppose the U.S. arms Libya's rebels with a range of small arms and light weapons -- rifles, pistols, shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons, crates of grenades. We teach the rebels how to use them, essentially standing up an alternate Libyan army. Eventually we go home, whether they win or lose, pleased to have done something we think was right.

But then what? Even in the best-case outcome -- a decisive victory by rebels who then immediately join together in unity to embrace Libyan democracy -- what about all those guns? What happens in a post-conflict Libya awash in arms, heavily populated by young men who know how to use them, who lack jobs or money or any prospect for either? In most modern militaries, the guns belong to the state, not individual soldiers. But whatever post-conflict government Libya cobbles together is likely to be weak and fractured at best. Libya's new government would struggle to exercise control over these munitions in the first days after fighting ended, and individual fighters would return to their homes better armed than when they left. What they'll then choose to do with those weapons is anybody's guess. One thing is certain: our guns would not stay in Libya, and there would be nothing we could do about it.

The story of arming rebels is the story of one of the unrecognized tragedies of our time: small arms proliferation. The abundance of cheap and increasingly deadly weapons fuels regional arms races and escalates the most minor conflicts; armed conflict is much more viable when the tools of violence are easy to come by. Charles Taylor invaded Liberia in 1989 with 150 men armed primarily with Soviet AK-47s, allegedly purchased through arms dealer Viktor Bout. Within months, thousands were dead. For all the attention paid to nuclear proliferation, small arms impose a far heavier human toll. Conservative estimates suggest that over half a million lives are lost to small arms every year through homicide, suicide, domestic violence, and armed conflict. In some estimates, 90% of all conflict casualties in the 1990s were caused by small arms.

It's difficult to overstate the economic toll of small arms proliferation. As developing countries become increasingly well-armed, people lose confidence in the country's prospects and direct and foreign investment dries up. This triggers a feedback loop, in which underdevelopment and poverty combined with access to arms make state and local actors more likely to conduct armed violence, which further limits development and perpetuates poverty as infrastructure is destroyed and lives are lost. Medical care and lost productivity as a result of premature disability and death can cost billions of dollars per year. Before Liberia's civil war, the U.S provided rural and urban development assistance, but increasing violence made further investment and growth impossible. Fourteen years and two civil wars saw the economy destroyed, one out of every 17 citizens dead, and most of the rest uprooted as Taylor sold diamonds and timber to purchase the small arms that cemented his control.

It doesn't take much firepower to destabilize an already fragile society.

Small arms proliferation relies on the basic principles of economics: supply, demand, and moving the goods between supplier and buyer. By arming the rebels, we'd furnish the supply side of the equation. During the conflict, the rebels, who are currently toting a wide range of weapons -- many of which are older, difficult to find parts for, and require a range of ammunition sizes -- can absorb this supply. When the civil war ends, however, the guns won't disappear. The rebels would possess a surplus of weapons and, with their economy in shambles and many having gone weeks or months fighting instead of working, a need for quick cash. Some weapons would move immediately; others would trickle out as security increased. Given that demand for guns remains high worldwide and especially in Libya's regional neighborhood, the incentive to sell would be too high to resist for long.

Transportation would be a non-issue; in a globalized world, borders are porous, particularly in post-conflict states. Without a strong central government, policing capability will be limited, making it easy for criminal organizations from around the world to set up shop in Libya. Organized crime syndicates have perfected the art of moving controlled goods, especially guns, and are a primary driver of the black market in small arms. If a Qaddafi- or rebel-led Libyan government didn't want to be caught reselling U.S. weapons, the small arms black market is replete with dealers like Bout who handle the mechanics of finding a buyer and moving the guns. We wouldn't even know it had happened.

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Diana Wueger writes on international and domestic small-arms topics at Gunpowder and Lead.

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