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'No taboo' in Germany arming Iraqis

While history shows that the long-term consequences of delivering weapons to crisis areas are often difficult to predict, says expert Thomas Speckmann, there are some practical control mechanisms.

DW: The German government

wants to deliver weapons to the Kurds

currently threatened by Islamic State terrorists in Iraq. Yet weapons deliveries can have unforeseeable consequences.

Speckmann: Opponents of weapons delivery like to use Afghanistan as an example. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, some Western states decided to deliver weapons to the mujahedeen, who were fighting the Soviet occupation. An argument can be made that these weapons later wound up in the hands of the Taliban, and were eventually turned against the West. I would view it differently. By the time the Taliban and al Qaeda became enemies of the West, experts believe these weapons were not operational, especially high-tech weapons such as shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft rockets. It is also reasonable to doubt that, in the area, there existed the expertise necessary to keep these complicated weapons systems operational. However, there are of course weapons with a longer shelf life, such as simple rifles or machine guns.

In which cases did the weapons deliveries have the desired effect?

In the 1980s, France and the US faced Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in Chad. The Western powers aided the Chad rebels with military advisers and weapons against the Gadhafi-supported government troops. The rebels received air support from the French air force. One year after the start of the conflict, they overthrew the president of Chad. Gadhafi was also dealt a blow in this conflict because German-French "Milan" anti-tank missiles destroyed hundreds of Libyan army tanks. These types of anti-tank missiles will possibly be delivered to the Kurds in Iraq.

You're not saying that what happened in Chad will also happen in Iraq?

No. But here we come to a problem that I would like to highlight with another negative example. In 1982 there was the Falklands War. The Argentinian military regime was supplied a massive number of modern weapons by the USA and France. It was only because of this that Argentina was able to conduct a campaign against the British in the Falkland Islands. The weapons utilized in this war lead to the heaviest losses suffered by the British Royal Navy since World War II. If Washington and Paris had known this would happen, they would have surely never approved such arms sales to Argentina.

This means that one cannot fundamentally know what will become of such weapons after their delivery. Weapons deliveries as indirect interventions in conflicts can in this respect be compared with direct military intervention. In these cases, too, it isn't possible to know beforehand whether the success of such actions will be sustainable. Whoever claims that one can exactly predict the geopolitical consequences of current actions in coming decades is being unrealistic.

In what ways can the parties involved influence what eventually happens to such arms?

It depends on the type of weapon. With simple weapons, such as a Kalashnikovs, there are ways to control them - as with complicated weapons systems as well. For these weapons, there are always special parts that are needed, and that are difficult to acquire on the international arms market. By ensuring that these parts are not delivered, one can practice a type of control on these weapons systems. In complicated weapons systems, there are also built-in mechanisms through which people can take control of the weapons from outside the area. It's a type of built-in security control.

Merkel und Leyen

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right) with German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Some in the government have deemed plans to deliver weapons a taboo breach.

I doubt that it is really a taboo breach. In the history of the German Federal Republic, there have already been similar cases. For example, during the aforementioned Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Germans, at the time, delivered gas masks, night vision equipment, blankets and tents. I think that the worry about an alleged taboo breach is really only taking place in the media. It has simply been forgotten that we have already given similar forms of assistance.

Thomas Speckmann is a historian and political scientist. He teaches at the University of Bonn's Institute of Political Science and Sociology

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