After 19 al-Qaeda militants armed only with box-cutters and knives hijacked four American commercial airliners, the U.S. military moved with remarkable efficiency to rectify the problem. In the years since, in its global war on terror, the Pentagon has ensured that America’s enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere have regularly been able to arm themselves with… well, not to beat around the bush, a remarkable range of U.S. weaponry. The latest such story: a report that in recent fighting around the city of Tal Afar, the Iraqi military recovered a U.S.-produced FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile and launcher from an Islamic State weapons cache. That’s a weapon capable of taking out an M1 Abrams tank. And this is hardly the first time U.S. anti-tank missiles meant either for the Iraqi military or Syrian rebels backed by the CIA have turned up in the hands of ISIS militants. In 2015, that group released photos of its fighters using U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles.
Of course, when the American-trained, funded, and armed Iraqi army collapsed in the summer of 2014 in the face of relatively small numbers of ISIS fighters, that group took vast stores of U.S. weaponry and vehicles that they’ve used ever since. But that was hardly the end of it. The U.S. soon began retraining and rearming its Iraqi allies to the tune of $1.6 billion for “tens of thousands of assault rifles, hundreds of armored vehicles, hundreds of mortar rounds, nearly 200 sniper rifles, and other gear,” much of which, a government audit found, the Pentagon simply lost track of. The weaponry, you might say, went missing in action. No one knew whose hands much of it ended up in and this wasn’t a new story, either. For example, in 2007 the Government Accountability Office found that “the United States could not account for nearly 30% of the weapons it had distributed in Iraq since 2004 — about 200,000 guns.”
Similar stories could be told about Afghanistan, another country where U.S. weaponry has disappeared in remarkable quantities. (The Taliban, for instance, recently released a video of their fighters sporting weaponry normally used only by U.S. Special Operations personnel.) In short, the Pentagon has been arming itself, its allies, and its enemies in a profligate fashion for years now in its never-ending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. As TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore suggests today, since 9/11 the U.S. military has in some sense been fighting itself — and losing. Someday, when historians look back on this bizarre tale, they will have to explain one thing above all: Why, year after year, in the face of obvious and repetitive failure in such conflicts, was no one in Washington capable of imagining another course of action?