Spoils of war
By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer
A COVERT US programme involving the disposal of military equipment captured from Iraqi forces during the 1990-1991 Gulf War appears to have been broader in scope than originally thought, suggesting that similar activities may remain pervasive.
The Washington Post revealed in October 1991 that Afghan guerillas were deploying tanks, artillery, mortars and other equipment captured in the Gulf War to support a major offensive against Gardez, a government-held garrison in eastern Afghanistan. Mujahideen officials said the material had been supplied by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The report had few details of the covert programme, reflecting uncertainty over the methodology and the amount of material involved. But it did provide some political context to the arrangement.
'The shipments of captured Iraqi equipment were authorised (in 1991), when the US and other supporters of the mujahideen were pursuing a two-track policy of backing diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the 12- year-old Afghan war while at the same time maintaining military pressure on Kabul's Soviet-backed government,' the article stated.
Beyond the glare of interest in the high-profile Afghan conflict, former Iraqi military equipment was later provided to several other recipients.
Bangladesh quietly obtained 40 tanks from captured Iraqi stocks in 1993, together with an unknown number of armoured personnel carriers (APCs). The former were mainly a mix of T-54/55 and Type 59 main battle tanks.
'We were last on the list,' a Bangladeshi source said.
The source identified the other recipients as Egypt, Pakistan and Syria. A retired senior US State Department official subsequently confirmed these four allocations while adding Saudi Arabia to the list.
The five countries named were all members of the 35-nation US-led coalition which came together under United Nations authorisation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia appear to have used the Iraqi kit to support their allies in Afghanistan, while Bangladesh integrated the equipment it received with its own arsenal. It is not known what Egypt and Syria did with their windfall allocations.
But two of these countries, Pakistan and Syria, were subject to US arms sanctions.
US sanctions on Pakistan were based on the 1985 Pressler Amendment, which banned most US military and economic aid if the US president was unable to determine annually that Pakistan did not have nuclear arms.
This determination was withheld for the first time in 1990. Sanctions against Damascus were based on Syria's inclusion from 1979 on the US State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and were firmed up under the 1989 Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Control Act.
These constraints suggest it would have been domestically unlawful for the US administration to provide the two countries with captured Iraqi equipment. However, a point raised by the Bangladeshi source suggests how this may have been bypassed.
Asked who gave the tanks and APCs to Dhaka, he said they were a gift from the government of Kuwait. The basis for Kuwait's claim of ownership remains unclear.
The Straits Times was unable to query the government of Kuwait on this point, and an attempt several years ago to discuss the issue with then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein proved unsuccessful. A request for related documents to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) elicited a hazy response that seems to confirm the programme's existence without providing any further insight.
'We located material that we determined is currently and properly classified and must be withheld in its entirety on the basis of FOIA exemptions (b) (1) and (b) (3),' the CIA stated in a letter from its Information and Privacy Coordinator.
'We also located US government material that CIA did not originate (and) we referred this material to its originating agency for review as it appears to be relevant to your request. That agency will respond to you directly.'
This unnamed agency never did respond. Similarly, the US Department of Defence did not answer a separate query on whether any war material captured from Iraq during the current conflict there has been distributed to any third party or provided to another US agency for such purpose.
Washington discreetly maintains an extensive structure focused on obtaining foreign military equipment.
'All the services have programmes directed at the acquisition of foreign material, and there are also some private 'contractors' involved,' said a retired US military officer who was directly involved in such efforts.
'The Defence Intelligence Agency (under the Defence Department) has its own section, the Foreign Material Office, whose activities are mainly overt although there are also covert programmes. The 'dark side' (CIA) has a parallel office but I can't remember the name, and if I did I probably couldn't tell you.
'The main purpose of these offices is in intelligence acquisition. Some of the equipment, once exploited, I assume went to Opfor (opposition forces) training centres.
'In theory, the information obtained is made available to all branches of the military. There were Defence Department coordination conferences in which we discussed what was being collected and what we wanted to collect.'
This system is operated under some sort of oversight process, whose workings are unclear. 'On one occasion we had to give something back because someone deemed that the item had not been 'correctly' obtained,' the former military source said.
Others suggested this system of oversight does not appear to include a requirement for the issuance of end-user certificates, making spoils of war ideal for covert transfer to a third party. End-user certificates are a formal control mechanism used by countries to ensure that legitimately exported military equipment is used for its stated purpose.
The US Defence Department never responded to a query on whether the transfer of captured war material requires an end-user certificate.
Regardless of this reticence, the use of captured war material for political benefit is not unique to the US. A French source said Paris did much the same with Soviet military kit captured from Libyan forces fighting in Chad in the 1980s, covertly transferring some of this equipment to friendly forces in Africa.
But there is a subtle difference between the French and US programmes: France was fighting independently in Chad, whereas US forces were in Iraq as part of a military coalition. Presumably, under the latter circumstances, the disposal of captured war material would be subject to a form of collective decision.
Clearly, this was not the case in the Gulf War. And this raises intriguing questions about future coalition-type military operations.