Small Wars Journal

Buying Out the Insurgency -- Re-evaluating the Community De-Weaponization Initiative in Iraq

In September of 2003 I went into Baghdad's Sadr City Ali Baba market (now called al-Nidawi market) for my first illicit black-market arms purchase. Early on outfitting Iraqi soldiers and bodyguards required use of all resources ... including the street markets. Every one of my men had their own Kalashnikov, commandeered from Police stations, army barracks or Ba'ath party offices but the ability to sustain them with ammunition, working sidearms, high capacity ammunition magazines and light machineguns was beyond anyone's capability except for the local black market.

Prior to the invasion, hundreds of thousands of weapons were widely distributed for use by the 400,000 man Iraqi armed forces, regime security forces and Al Quds civilian defense force. The security forces and intelligence agencies created thousands of caches of weapons for the follow-on insurgency. Most caches included several artillery shells, dozens of mortar shells, rocket launchers, automatic rifles, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. Weapons of all types imaginable from the Makarov pistol to the SA-16 Man portable Air Defense Missile System (MANPADS) were cached. They are still discovered daily. In the chaos of the victory of coalition forces over the Iraqi army the population stripped the Iraqi government of well over a million, automatic rifles, light machineguns and heavy crew served weapons.

Another contributing factor in the proliferation of small arms was the release of all criminals by both Saddam Hussein and coalition forces. Over 100,000 dangerous criminals were set free and consequently home invasion and revenge murders became rampant. The AK-47 became the must have tool critical for personal defense of the home. Early in April 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority issued CPA Order Number Three, which allowed every family to be in possession of one rifle, shotgun or pistol including Kalashnikov automatic rifles for self-defense of the home. This was accomplished easily: Many had taken the opportunity to steal the hundreds of thousands of weapons. Others paid approximately $50 dollars for a Kalashnikov and a magazine of ammunition.

When I first investigated the Iraqi arms black market, it became instantly clear that the population would become a source of logistical support for the fledgling Iraqi insurgency. The quantity of weapons and ammunition in the public realm was staggering. One buying expedition for empty magazines resulted in offers of over 20 RPG-7 rocket launchers and dozens of explosive rounds, two SA-7 MANPADs with batteries, dozens of mortar rounds and a cache of over 20,000 rounds of 14.5mm heavy machinegun ammunition. If you were a serious cash player, with no visible ties to the coalition (most sellers thought I was a Sudanese insurgent), almost anything could be delivered in the span of two cups of tea or approx 15 minutes.

The logistical pipeline of the insurgency at that time was sustained by supplementing cached and stolen arms with purchases from the small arms black market. In fact, the sales of weapons on the black market was so prevalent that the coalition authorized the shooting of illicit arms dealers, the most notable being the deaths of two open-air arms dealers by US Army snipers in Tikrit. At that time coalition forces had lost 91 soldiers to the insurgency. Unlike the rebellion in 1920 under the British that sputtered due to a lack of guns and ammunition, a top concern of CJTF-7 was that the black market of looted arms would sustain the intensity and duration of this insurgency.

Unfortunately, the black market still thrives and the selling and reselling of weapons continues unabated. The US government supplied the Iraqi army 380,000 rifles and pistols that it did not initially register or control. The US Army inspector general reported over 4% (14,000) of the Glock-17 pistols for the police were stolen between delivery to the Iraqi police and issue to officers. As one Iraqi policeman told Reuters "I sold my Glock pistol and my bullet-proof vest for $1,500 so that I can feed my family until I find a safer job. They were mine to sell, after all I had risked my life and faced death."

The 2006 destruction of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarrah led to an explosion in arms purchases for home and community defense in both the Sunni and Shiite regions of the country. The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey reported that in 2007 the price of a Kalashnikov rose to between $210 and $800 depending on the location and one's faith. Prices of Kalashnikov bullets rose to nearly $1 per round. Glock 17 or Walther P99 handguns stolen from the police and army rose to nearly $2,000. RPG-7 launchers were sold to militiamen at four times the previous street price. The SVD Sniper rifle, which could have been brought for $300 early in the insurgency now stands at $1,800.

Weapons have an inherent cultural and personal value, not just for community defense. The rifle is a cherished cultural feature for many tribes and peoples, such as in Yemen, Somalia and even America. In some cultures, it is a symbol of power and manhood, in others it is a sign of community status. In Middle Eastern cultures it is auspicious and a sign of wealth to fire of hundreds of rounds during wedding celebrations. There will always be rifles in the Iraqi home. However, many Iraqis retain numerous hidden weapons and explosives that, like the gold or jewelry they hide in their walls, are insurance to be converted into cash. The focus should be to ensure these weapons are not sold to the insurgents or to dealers who will supply the insurgents. The intent of any program enacted by the coalition should not be to remove all weapons from the community but to remove the large excess military hardware that could be sold in difficult times to anti-Iraqi forces. Our search and seize tactics are highly unpopular and alienate many we are trying to influence Perhaps there is a better way.

Incentivize the Community to Starve the Insurgency

In October 2003 I proposed a program called the Community De-weaponization Initiative (CDI) to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer via USAID as community revitalization and security program. The CDI's goal was as simple as it was revolutionary-- take cash and leverage the economic power of the United States to buy out the insurgency's street-based logistic capacity, starving the internal resupply structure of the insurgency. This in turn would curtail or limit the amount of attacks on the Iraqi population and coalition forces in the field. The program was dismissed because the initial $50 million dollars requested was believed to be far too excessive.

This program was recently brought back up for discussion after an incident where my Iraqi staff negotiated the release of three kidnapped Turkish engineers in Kirkuk. The kidnappers were a cell associated with the foreign terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq but during negotiations had complained that they not been paid in months. Demanding $150,000 US dollars the cell leader, a Jordanian, stated in frustration "We want to take the money and go home."

However the CDI is not principally oriented to the religiously motivated terrorist or insurgent. Ideologically motivated insurgents, including those of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al Islam and the Islamic Army of Iraq are the least susceptible to financial inducements. The CDI is oriented to disrupting the IED and ambush social networks by micro targeting three other categories of individuals who actively or passively support the insurgency.

These groups include financially motivated insurgents who plant and detonate IEDs or sell weapons to support their families. The next targeted group is the immediate family members who support the insurgents or militiamen out of economic and financial frustration. Finally, it targets the greater community social support network by showing that the sale of military grade weapons and explosives in exchange for cash could bring needed infusion of social welfare in some desperate communities. Cash to tribal leaders in direct exchange for weapons or IEDs, done through the CDI, could bring big material benefits including community diesel generators, ability to purchase fuel oil or assist families with cash that wish to leave the insurgency or who are displaced.

This option of allowing people to sell extra weapons, secretly point out 'an object on the street', or sell a mortar base-plate in the backyard allows them to maintain a veneer of respectability because they did not sell out the insurgency directly.

Providing financial compensation in exchange for removing the logistical base of the insurgents is far less odious than offering a direct bribe. A man that can make a large lump sum quantity of money turning over his IED trigger, selling out his artillery shells in the garden, dropping off two or three MANPADs at a CDI disposal facility or pointing out to an NGO investigator the mortar arms cache in the date grove is one less player that the coalition has to capture or kill. However, the CDI gives him an opportunity to do it on his terms at a time of his choosing and under anonymity of a civilian disarmament program run by NGOs and not the US Army.

The risk of CDI money flowing back to the insurgency is minimal. With the current economic situation in Iraq few former insurgents, or their wives, will turn any money back over to the Jihad or go out and buy weapons at a higher price from a skyrocketing market controlled by the coalition.

Though controversial, I believe that the real center of gravity for the financially motivated insurgents that dominates many of the Shiite militias and armed Sunni groups is the immediate family. Iraqis, like all of us, cherish their family -- particularly their children and they have a ferverent desire to ensure their children study and live in a level of minimal comfort at least equal to that before the invasion. That comfort generally means food, electricity and air conditioning particularly in summer. This actual lack of minimal living standards has been complaint number one in all regions of Iraq. The loss of that level of family comfort, coupled with the loss of security after the fall of Hussein led to many to support the insurgents.

From the day this proposal was first offered, the coalition has lost nearly 3,600 additional soldiers. The material and equipment losses are equally staggering. Had this program been implemented at the time and "budgetary concerns" not been an overriding issue, the program could have been effected for a fraction of what has been spent fighting the war. Additionally, the economic benefits may be an inducement to bring the Sunni community into greater and less temporary alignment with the central government.

You Have Weapons? We have Cash!

The original CDI proposed requested $50 million dollars to purchase all manners of weapons -- from rifles to grenades to IEDs. Any weapons that could be sold to the insurgency would be bought out by the program at prices that would be irresistible to the community and eventually, to the holders of insurgent weapons caches.

This program was radically different from the small scale rifle and MANPAD buy back programs Commander, Joint task Force Seven (CJTF-7) and Multi-national Force -- Iraq conducted in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Again the intent of the CDI is to buy out the entire insurgency supply base, not just police up a few hundred pieces. It is designed to puts large quantities of money in the hands of any potential insurgent supplier and to get the insurgents themselves to turn-in or steal the caches, IEDs or weapons under their control. They would then exchange them for cash. At that point they would take the cash given to them, amounts of which could be substantial, and leave the insurgency altogether.

Weapons would be purchased at prices that no insurgent force or arms dealers could control or resist. If an extra Kalashnikov was purchased at the 2003 street price of $125 (it has now increased to an average $400 as of January 2007). The CDI would pay three times the market price or more per weapon depending on the item in question. Had MANPADs been bought back for the street price terrorists are —to pay ($15,000-20,000) instead of the $500 offered by CJTF-7 three years ago more than the 400 they purchased would have been recovered. According to the Washington Post that program left unaccounted over 4,000 missiles.

Attempts to artificially raise the price of weapons (by wholesalers hording large quantities of weapons) can easily be foiled with targeted raids and those resellers taken off the market. Prices would be matched to the point where the insurgents and criminals could no longer afford to buy weapons as the CDI would always pay a better price. The Iraqi community would quickly see it would be better to sell to the CDI rather than an intermediary or insurgent, take the cash from extra weapons, explosives or known arms caches of insurgents and buy him or herself a better life.

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Willingness to participate was so anticipated at the time of the proposal to the CPA that just the rumor of a start date created a round of arms hording amongst families and tribes in Basrah.

The Current Price is Unacceptable

The average cost to coalition forces daily is the lives of two soldiers and several vehicles. To me the losses of these soldiers is priceless. However, the combined costs in SGLI insurance payouts, a wounded warrior's rehabilitation, and the repair and replacement costs of just one Humvee and crew would again be a fraction of just paying a Sadrist cash not to lay his Explosively Formed Penetrator; or paying a religious extremist to drop off his car bomb in a remote field or paying an IED triggerman $2,000 cash to pre-detonate an freshly laid IED and call it a 'miss.'

Overtime, the trust built on money could yield new intelligence assets who would turn over entire IED/SVBIED networks for cash --particularly if they send their family abroad. However, 'show me the money' will always be a principal demand. That money must be given freely in direct exchange for a weapon -- no questions asked.

At the time of this writing the US has spent almost $350 billion dollars fighting the Iraq insurgency man for man, bullet for bullet. Considering that the coalition spends $177 million per day on Iraq, channeling a small portion of those funds into buying out the insurgents and his logistical pipeline could be the key to breaking their ability to execute well supplied operations in the future.

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Accompanying PPT: Community De-Weaponization Program

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