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.

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.

Even if the Libyan government wants to retain some of these weapons, the question then becomes, for how long? Theft from military depots is a primary source of black market arms. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, army officers frequently sold off the weapons they had been tasked with overseeing. In the last several years, Thailand has experienced a string of arsenal break-ins that are presumed to be an inside job; last month alone, 200 small arms plus ammunition went missing and may be headed for other regional conflicts. It's hardly a stretch to imagine Libyan rebel commanders doing the same.

The defining feature of small arms is their portability and durability. After the guns leave our hands, we have no control over where they eventually end up, and no way to take them out of commission. Once the guns move past the first user -- in this case, the rebels -- there's no predicting when or in whose hands they'll resurface. M-16s left behind by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were captured by the North Vietnamese and traded to Cuba for sugar. Cuba then provided these weapons to Marxist militants in Central and South America. More recently, these same guns have popped up on our borders in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Whether or not we ever face U.S.-trained Libyan fighters across a battlefield, there would be a dark but sadly not new irony to the slaughter of our allies -- or our own troops -- with the guns we put in Libya.

There isn't much we could we do to prevent the guns we ship to Libya from proliferating. We would tell the rebels that we'd prefer if they didn't sell them to people who don't like us very much, but we have no enforcement mechanisms and no leverage. We can attempt to buy back our guns, but the track record of gun buyback programs is spotty at best. Without a large-scale disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration effort, ex-combatants typically sell off outdated models and broken weapons for cash, which they then use to purchase better weapons.

In the 1980s, the U.S armed with Afghan Mujahedeen with around 1,000 STINGER missiles. Later, when we lost interest in the conflict and became concerned the missiles could be used against Americans, allies, or civilian airliners, we tried to buy them back. But, as we discovered, it's nearly impossible to track small arms after they've been dispersed. Filing off serial numbers is child's play, and without serial numbers, there's no way to identify a particular weapon as U.S.-provided. Even if we could collect most of what we gave out -- which we can't -- a scant handful of high-powered weapons in the hands of bad actors can be disastrous in a place where government control is weak. It doesn't take much firepower to destabilize an already fragile society.

We put lie to our commitments to combat illicit arms trafficking when we move weapons into a situation that is clearly headed for greater violence. The U.S. intervened in Libya because of a humanitarian "responsibility to protect," as it is often put in the United Nations. When arms are proliferated to untrained or undertrained individuals, either state-controlled or private, those individuals often ignore regulations regarding the treatment of civilians. We can control who we do and don't bomb, but we have no say over who the Libyan fighters do and don't shoot. Nor do we control what second or third-hand owners do with our guns. In situations like this, the conditions become ripe for violations of international humanitarian law. Do we not also have a moral obligation to prevent the inevitable trafficking of our arms to other conflict zones, where other unprotected civilian populations will suffer from our short-sightedness? More immediately, even if more guns could bring a quick resolution to this war, their continued impact on post-war Libya will ultimately be a net loss for the country -- and for us.