No-win scenario? Or bad choices in arms sales?

CENTCOM confirmed on Wednesday that a US airstrike hit a factory in Hawija, a city in Iraq’s Kirkuk Province, where ISIS makes giant car bombs (“Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device,” or VBIED) of the type that were used to devastating effect in its capture of Ramadi last month. Per VICE, the Kurdish news service Rudaw is reporting that 70 civilians, including 26 children, were killed in the bombing, which set of a chain reaction of explosions (as you might expect when a bomb factory is itself bombed).

I don’t know what you say about something like this. The VBIED facility wasn’t mistakenly targeted; this wasn’t an errant drone blowing up a wedding party. It wasn’t an illegitimate target, or even a target whose value was questionable. The devices ISIS builds in these factories really matter, as the Iraqi defenders of Ramadi found out first-hand. Assuming that the coalition really intends to degrade and defeat ISIS, it has to restrict their ability to produce these things, which are major force multipliers for them. And that seems like it will inevitably mean civilian casualties, which are awful in and of themselves but are also highly counter-productive to the same war effort that the airstrikes are trying to help. ISIS is much harder to defeat when it’s able to manufacture these big VBIEDs, but it’s also much harder to defeat when you drive Sunni civilians toward ISIS by killing and crippling their friends and loved ones, and by destroying their own homes and livelihoods.

So what do you do? “Pull out of Iraq” is one way to stop killing Iraqi civilians, but it’s also what ISIS wants and, at any rate, is pure fantasy in that there’s no way the US government would seriously entertain that as an option. Not bombing even legitimate military targets when there’s a risk of civilian casualties is an option, but not bombing these VBIED facilities also risks civilian lives when the VBIEDs eventually get used. In the here and now, with the US committed to this fight, this is a real lose-lose situation.

Although, there is yet another option: stop selling US military equipment to the Iraq army. As it turns out, some of the largest of ISIS’s VBIEDs are being made using captured Humvees sold to the Iraqis by the US and lost (some 2300 of them, along with tanks and lots of small arms and ammo) to ISIS, mostly in the Iraqi army’s hasty retreat from Mosul. Humvees make particularly effective VBIEDs, since their armor keeps the suicide bomber/driver protected until he gets to the target and they’re big enough to pack in enough explosives to level entire city blocks.

But, hey, why let the fact that most of the weapons we sell to Iraq wind up in ISIS’s hands let us stop selling weapons to Iraq? Luckily, we haven’t:

To help replenish Iraq’s motor pool, the U.S. State Department last year approved a sale to Iraq of 1,000 Humvees, along with their armor upgrades, machine guns and grenade launchers. The United States previously donated 250 Mine Resistant Armored Personnel carriers (MRAPs) to Iraq, plus unaccountable amounts of material left behind when American forces departed in 2011. The United States is currently in the process of moving to Iraq 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 55,000 rounds of main tank-gun ammunition, $600 million in howitzers and trucks, $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles and 2,000 AT-4 rockets.

The Hellfires and AT-4′s, anti-tank weapons, are presumably going to be used to help destroy the American armor in the hands of Islamic State. The United States is also conducting air strikes to destroy weapons seized by Islamic State. It’s a surreal state of affairs in which American weaponry is being sent into Iraq to destroy American weaponry previously sent into Iraq. If a new sequel to Catch-22 were to be written, this would be the plot line.

Now, you could argue that cutting off weapons sales is also lose-lose, since it theoretically weakens the Iraqi army at a time when it needs to be getting stronger. But if the Iraqi army isn’t yet ready to do anything with American weaponry apart from giving it to the enemy, then maybe the weapons sales need to stop at least until that problem can be fixed.


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