Monday, January 31, 2005

Five'll get you ten...

The Afghan authorities have launched an initiative to prod people into handing back Stinger missiles. The Stinger was highly effective against Soviet helicopter gunships during the 1980s* and it is now feared that they could cause mischief against the good guys (though a dissenting opinion I heard argued that few of them would be in workable condition these days).

The initiative rest on a bounty being paid upon handover of weapons. This sort of policy does not have a particularly happy pedigree - though as I shall explain later, different circumstances provide different contexts and the lessons of past attempts in a similar vein may not provide clear cut lessons in this instance.

In post conflict situations in which civil society is awash with arms, it has been surprisingly common practice for reconstruction authorities to offer a bounty in exchange for arms handover. This doesn't work. The authorities invariably offer somewhat over the odds for weapons in order to provide motivation, but all this does in effect is set in motion an unfortunate supply/demand cycle. Because most of the small arms found in post-conflict regions tend to be readily available mass produced Soviet and Chinese pieces, most notably the AK47, such arms can be bought for less than the UN or regional authorities are prepared to pay for them. A healthy profit can therefore be made by buying cheap and selling expensive. In practice the locals, far from becoming disarmed, simply become the middle men in an increasingly thriving arms market. Guarenteed bounties for weapons also draws every conflict vulture and two bit arms racketeer in the region like moths to a flame. Paradoxically, a policy that is intended to disarm the area generally results in not only the locals not being disarmed but a thriving influx of small arms into what is effectively a newly created market.

A similar, but if anything even more grave problem has been encountered in Afghanistan with regard to the demand for terrorist prisoners. In the immediate aftermath of the Afghan campaign, the Americans offered Afghan tribesmen a substantial bounty in exchange for the handover of foreign terrorists and indigenous Taliban supporters. Unfortunately, this created a thriving market in which impoverished Afghans could accrue life-transforming amounts of cash by hoovering up any foreigner, tribal rival and person-who-looked-at-them-funny in sight and handing them over to the US. It is clear that a number of the people who were held at Gitmo for extended periods of time (amounting to years) were merely casualties of circumstance who were in the wrong place at the wrong time or had pissed off the wrong people. Even when this is not the case, the ability to allege capture of innocents for profit has served to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the American position in the matter of, for example, the recently returned British prisoners.

Obviously, the first case study is the most relevant in this instance, but happily the similarities are not exact. Stinger missiles are not AK47s. They are more expensive and significantly more common and one imagines that the ability to flood them into the region must be extremely limited indeed. So hopefully the current initiative will at worst be ineffective rather than counterproductive. But it's something worth bearing in mind.

*Trivia - the Stinger was first used in anger by the SAS. Apparently when British troops were assigned to do some training with the Americans and the Americans wanted to show them how the Stinger worked, they were startled to discover that the SAS not only knew how to use it, but had already blown stuff up with it.


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