Small arms a huge problem in Iraq, worldwide

December 03, 2006|By Larry Kahaner and Rachel Stohl

Last week marked an unfortunate anniversary: The U.S. presence in Iraq is now longer than U.S. involvement in World War II. A major reason for the length of our stay in Iraq has been the widespread use of large numbers of small arms and light weapons as the primary tool of war. These weapons are devastating in terms of lives lost, but in Iraq, and many other conflict areas, small arms proliferation also has substantially hindered economic recovery.

Small arms and light weapons are the primary weapons of today's conflicts, killing hundreds of thousands of people every year and injuring countless more. But the indirect costs of small-arms violence - opportunities lost because of perpetual violence and crime - affect millions more worldwide. This violence inflicts a heavy economic toll on countries engaged in or emerging from conflict, and these economic losses can impede a country's long-term viability as much as loss of human capital, making small-arms control even more of an imperative.

The catastrophic economic consequences of small-arms proliferation are evident in Iraq, which is awash in such weapons. Weapons continue to find their way into the hands of perpetrators of violence, whether they are smuggled across its porous borders or stolen from stockpiles in the country. Companies have often had to either pull out workers because their safety cannot be assured or pay exorbitantly for protection. Although the United States, Iraq and international donors have committed more than $60 billion to rebuild and run Iraq's damaged infrastructure, security costs are eroding a substantial share of that total - up to 36 percent on some projects, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report.

Iraqis are also having trouble rebuilding their economy. In January 2004, an estimated 90 percent of the 24,000 Iraqi businesses that the Iraqi government says opened in the previous nine months were inoperative because they were unable to secure a work force and supplies. These new business owners claimed that, among other factors, lack of security and unreliable electricity made it difficult, if not impossible, for their businesses to function. Since then the problem has only escalated. If steps are not taken to control the proliferation of small arms throughout Iraq, a solid economic infrastructure on which to build the nation's future security will remain elusive.

Similar situations exist throughout Africa and Latin America, which have also seen opportunities for growth and prosperity slip away because global companies are hesitant to commit workers and investment in the midst of ever-present, low-level conflicts or constant, quick-and-dirty terrorist and criminal raids. A World Bank study revealed that, during civil war, a country's economic growth tends to slow by approximately 2.2 percentage points annually, and that average incomes after a conflict are approximately 15 percent less than if armed conflict had not occurred.

Total lost income in a country that has experienced civil war amounts to approximately 60 percent of its annual gross domestic product. The same World Bank study found that the negative economic effects of conflict are not solely due to the diversion of resources to military build-ups. Capital flight increases from 9 percent to 20 percent of private wealth during a conflict but rises even higher, to 26.1 percent, during the decade after a conflict.

The common denominator fueling smoldering conflicts across the globe is inexpensive and easy-to-obtain military assault rifles, most notably the AK-47 - the most ubiquitous small arm in the world, which can be bought for as little as $10 or traded for livestock. The presence of these weapons doesn't start wars, but their continued and uncontrolled proliferation ensures that a swift conclusion will not be at hand, and that chances of robust post-conflict reconstruction are tenuous.

Although the situation seems bleak, governments can take several steps. In particular, states must adopt measures that control the supply of small arms, ensuring adherence to arms embargoes and adopting measures such as the proposed arms trade treaty that would develop common international standards for arms transfers. The United Nations General Assembly will vote on taking the first steps toward an arms trade treaty this month.

States must also take existing, destabilizing supplies and stocks of small arms out of circulation through collection and destruction programs. And states must address the demand for weapons by promoting alternatives to violence and guaranteeing the safety and security of their citizens. Because weapons are often used to obtain resources, demand-reduction strategies must focus on institution-building, economic development, social welfare and judicial reform to allow citizens equal access to nonviolent means of providing for themselves and their families.

Such steps are not only the right thing to do, they are smart for business as well.

Larry Kahaner is the author of "AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War." His e-mail is Rachel Stohl is senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information and co-author of "Small Arms Trade: A Beginner's Guide." Her e-mail is

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