The World

Surprise: American Firepower Doesn’t Make Countries More Peaceful

An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter loads a gun on the front line in Khazer, near the Kurdish checkpoint of Aski kalak, 40 km West of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on August 14, 2014. 

Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, the U.S. has also ramped up its already substantial assistance to Iraq’s military. This effort has only accelerated since the removal of controversial Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. According to the Wall Street Journal, this aid will come in the form of thousands of hellfire missiles and, if Congress agrees, new F-16s and Apache attack helicopters.

U.S. military assistance to allied governments is a common way of restoring stability in fragile states suffering from internal violence. But its track record isn’t great.

A recent paper from economists Oeindrila Dube of NYU and Suresh Naidu of Columbia takes a look at the effectiveness in a very different context: the decades-old insurgency in Colombia.

Colombia is a good testing ground for this question, having received more than $5 billion in U.S. military aid since 1988 with the aim of stamping out the drug trade and pacifying the insurgency led by left-wing guerilla groups. American aid and weaponry was also distributed unevenly among local bases throughout the country, making it possible to assess the impact of varying amounts of assistance.

American aid was only supposed to end up in the hands of the Colombian military, but that’s not how things worked out. While not allied with the government and formally banned, right-wing paramilitary groups, frequently accused of human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, often received “informal assistance from military and police officers through unofficial channels” as the officers put it.

The authors found that in the areas they studied, a 1 percent increase in U.S. aid increases the frequency of paramilitary attacks by about 1.5 percent above the mean. On the other hand, it had no measurable effect on attacks by the guerillas or homicides. In other words, the aid seemed to increase the amount of violence perpetrated by pro-government armed groups without decreasing the amount committed by anti-government fighters.

The Colombian situation is obviously a very specific one, but the authors argue their research has wider implications: 

Though we focus on Colombia, our results speak to broad questions in political development and international assistance. Military aid is sometimes proposed as a cure for weak states, as it is presumed to enhance the government’s repressive capacity, and facilitate its ability to secure a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” Yet our results suggest that, in environments such as Colombia, international military assistance can strengthen armed non-state actors, who rival the government over the use of violence.

They also briefly discuss the implications for Iraq in particular, noting that during the U.S. occupation, “informal Shiite militias conducted joint operations with the U.S. backed Iraqi army against suspected insurgents, despite accusations of torture and other human rights violations.”

The role of these militias is a concern during this round of hostility. Many took up arms in the wake of the ISIS invasion with the official Iraqi army seeming to be in disarray. Just today, reports have emerged of Shiite militiamen gunning down 30 Sunnis at a mosque in Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad. The actions of these militias are going to make it far more difficult to build the kind of ethnically inclusive government that will be necessary to counter ISIS, but Iraq’s leaders may not have the political capital to rein them in, even if they genuinely want to. 

(The paper also doesn’t even get into the question of U.S.-supplied weapons captured by the militants themselves.)

Whether it’s Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Central America, it’s clear that providing weak governments with American firepower isn’t the best recipe for stability. If it’s going to work out better this time around, there needs to be a lot more oversight of how all the guns and money are being used.