Questionable Reward: Arms Sales and the War on Terrorism

Rachel Stohl

In November 2007, Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, invoked emergency rule, suspended the constitution, and arrested thousands of opponents and human rights advocates. As other countries, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, immediately suspended military aid and weapons deals, the United States, which has given Pakistan more than $10 billion in military assistance since September 11, 2001, decided it would review U.S. arms transfers to Pakistan. Washington also indicated it would likely not prevent any weapons transfers, asserting such a decision could undermine counterterrorism efforts.[1]

U.S. policy toward Pakistan is part of a larger trend of U.S. arms export policy since the September 11 attacks, whereby the United States has made the “global war on terror” its priority in determining arms transfers and military assistance. In the last six years, Washington has stepped up its sales and transfers of high-technology weapons, military training, and other military assistance to governments regardless of their respect for human rights, democratic principles, or nonproliferation. All that matters is that they have pledged their assistance in the global war on terrorism.

U.S. Arms Sales and Export Policy Before and After September 11

To be sure, the United States traditionally has used arms sales to “reward” those countries willing to support its policies. The claimed motivations of such policies have changed over time from anti-communism to democracy building to anti-terrorism. The basic notion of using arms sales as a means of promoting loyalty to U.S. goals has been consistent.

Throughout this period, the United States has dominated the global arms market and continues to do so today. In 2006, Washington concluded the largest number of new arms deals ($16.9 billion worth in 2006, 41.9 percent of the global total) and made the most actual arms deliveries ($14 billion, nearly 52 percent of global arms deliveries).[2] The United States’ closest competitors were Russia and the United Kingdom, which made $8.7 billion and $3.1 billion in new deals, respectively, and delivered $5.8 billion and $3.3 billion worth of weapons. The United States has also regained its position atop exporters to the developing world, the largest purchasers of arms. Although the total global value of arms agreements fell in 2006, the United States saw multibillion-dollar increases in the value of its arms transfer agreements worldwide and with the developing world.

Post-September 11 Policy Changes

Nonetheless, there have been important changes since the September 11 attacks, with the United States finessing its arms export policies to support its war on terrorism. The most significant changes have involved the lifting of sanctions, the increase of arms and military training provided to perceived anti-terrorist allies, and the development of new programs focused and based on the global anti-terrorist crusade. To understand and document this trend, the Center for Defense Information has analyzed military assistance data (using U.S. government data solely) for 25 countries[3] that have been identified by the United States as having a strategic role in the war on terrorism. These countries include those that reflect the counterterrorism priorities of the United States—17 are “frontline” states identified by the Bush administration as “countries that cooperate with the United States in the war on terrorism or face terrorist threats themselves”—and others strategically located near Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lifting Sanctions

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, the Bush administration proposed allowing arms sales to potential anti-terrorist allies that had previously been blocked from weapons transfers because they had committed significant human rights violations, lacked sufficient democratic institutions, had been involved in acts of aggression, or had tested nuclear weapons. Congressional opposition prevented these sanctions from being lifted en bloc, and as a result, decisions to lift sanctions were made on a case-by-case basis. To date, the United States has completely lifted pre-September 11 sanctions on Armenia, Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now Montenegro and Serbia). Since September 11, 2001, additional military assistance restrictions to Thailand and Indonesia have been waived.

These countries have been identified as key allies in the global war on terrorism, but each has troubling recent pasts, which led to them being placed on the list in the first place. Not only is each country involved in interstate or intrastate conflicts, but India and Pakistan have been criticized for their evolving nuclear weapons programs, Pakistan’s and Thailand’s military governments attained power as a result of coups, Azerbaijan has been embroiled for well more than a decade in a shaky cease-fire with Armenia, the stability of Tajikistan remains questionable, and the human rights record of Indonesia’s military remains of great concern. Although sanctions have been removed, the conditions in these countries have not improved and in many cases have become worse. Nonetheless, arms transfers and other military assistance to all have increased. In addition, the human rights records of many of these countries have actually worsened, with increasing abuses by government and security forces. U.S. transfers could fuel these human rights abuses and continuing conflict. If the events of September 11, 2001, had never happened, these countries would likely still remain under strict U.S. sanctions.

Increasing Arms and Training to Anti-Terrorism Allies

The second policy shift has been the Bush administration’s commitment to using U.S. weapons to arm potential allies in the war against terrorism. On the six-month anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared that the United States was willing to provide training and assistance to any government facing a terrorist threat, stating that “America encourages and expects governments everywhere to help remove the terrorist parasites that threaten their own countries and peace of the world. If governments need training, or resources to meet this commitment, America will help.”[4]

In addition to the six countries that have had their sanctions lifted, the United States has provided military assistance to some countries that it had not aided previously in this way. For example, Yemen has received grants to acquire U.S weaponry for the last six years, but none in the 11 years prior to 2001. Turkmenistan is now buying U.S. weaponry, and Kyrgyzstan is now permitted to make commercial purchases of U.S. weapons. Even more telling, 18 of the 25 countries in this series received more military assistance and 16 concluded more arms sales with the United States during the five years after the September 11 attacks than they had during the period following the end of the Cold War (fiscal years 1990-2001).

In the first five years following September 11, 2001, the United States sold nearly five times more weapons through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) to these 25 countries than during the five years prior to that date. From fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year 2006, FMS to these countries increased from about $1.7 billion to $5.3 billion. DCS for these 25 countries have also reached new highs, rising from $72 million during fiscal years 1997-2001 to more than $3 billion during fiscal years 2002-2006. Pakistan had the largest increase in military sales (FMS and DCS) in the five-year period, signing agreements for $3.6 billion in U.S. defense articles. Other beneficiaries of the war on terrorism arms sale bonanza were Bahrain, which saw an increase of $1.6 billion, and Algeria, which saw an increase of nearly $600 million.

In Iraq, we have witnessed some of the drawbacks of this rush to arm and equip countries. In July 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that revealed that nearly 200,000 weapons and other military equipment that the United States had provided to Iraqi security forces had not been accounted for. Among the weaknesses noted by the GAO was that the Department of Defense, which oversees the Iraqi train-and-equip program, neglected to implement basic accountability procedures to keep track of the distribution of weapons issued in 2004 and 2005.[5] Today, the United States has not enunciated a clear plan to remedy these kinds of problems. Yet, as recently as September 2007, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, urged Washington to increase weapons sales to Iraq as soon as possible.

The United States has also viewed military training as an important aspect of its focus on fighting terrorism. A telling statement for the direction of U.S. policy was made in March 2002, when Bush emphasized U.S. reliance on training programs. He said, “We will not send American troops to every battle, but America will actively prepare other nations for the battles ahead.”[6] Since September 11, 2001, the United States has offered military training to many countries that have experienced terrorism on their own soil, are struggling with the presence of terrorist networks, or are essential to U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

The overall funding for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has grown dramatically since 2001. For the 25 countries, the IMET program grew from $39 million in the five years prior to September 11, 2001, to $93 million in the five years after the attacks. That has also meant that the 25 countries are receiving an even greater percentage of total U.S. military training funds. In 2001 the 25 countries received 15 percent of total IMET funds, but by 2006, their share had jumped to nearly 25 percent.

Although some of these countries are clearly involved with U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, with others, such as those in Africa and Asia, the United States is gambling that military training will buy allies in the long run. Military training in many instances promotes the readiness, efficiency, and effectiveness of foreign military troops. It may also worsen the situation in countries plagued by terrorism if a well-armed and unaccountable military is not kept in check with human rights training and the country does not receive assistance building legal and judicial structures. Economic and social aid should also be offered concurrently to help strengthen and promote internal stability. Moreover, in some countries, such as Colombia, Nepal, and the Philippines, what is being described as counterterrorism training is in practice counterinsurgency training. The United States is involving itself in internal conflicts around the world and is in practice encouraging countries to continue their internal struggles that predate September 11, 2001. Not every insurgency is a threat to U.S. security, and some may in fact have very little to do with halting the spread of terrorism worldwide.

The Bush administration argues that professionalizing the world’s militaries will help prevent human rights abuses down the road. Yet, the Department of State reveals in its annual human rights report that “serious,” “grave,” or “significant” abuses were committed by the government or state security forces in more than one-half of the 25 countries profiled in 2006 alone.[7] In many cases, U.S. military assistance to these countries is growing at the same time as human rights conditions are worsening. Ethiopia, which is carrying out a brutal counterinsurgency campaign within its own borders, also launched an invasion of Somalia in December 2006 blamed for the deaths of scores of civilians and the displacement of at least 100,000 Somalis in indiscriminate violence in and around Mogadishu. Chad, which suffers from widespread turmoil and corruption, employs child soldiers in the ranks of its national army and is at a minimum tacitly involved in the ongoing regional conflicts in the Central African Republic and Sudan. By providing military assistance with a disregard for human rights conditions, the United States is not only giving up the opportunity to use military assistance as leverage to improve human rights conditions, but is also rewarding abusive governments for their unconscionable actions.

Moreover, in some of these countries, the military has contributed to domestic political turmoil and instability. In 2006 and 2007, Chad, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand dealt with pervasive and significant upheaval. Nepalese security forces opened fire on peaceful strikes and anti-government demonstrations. Chad’s government barely survived a coup attempt. Thailand’s government was taken over in a “peaceful” military coup. The Musharraf government’s continuing battle against reform and political challengers led to the imposition of emergency rule, a move that abandons any pretense of democratic principles.

Establishment of New Programs

The third significant policy shift has been the creation of new Defense Department programs that provide training and weapons for counterterrorism operations outside traditional avenues of support. The Pentagon has long sought the freedom to provide military assistance without human rights conditions or other restrictions under current U.S. law as enunciated in the Foreign Assistance Act. In fiscal year 2002, the Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) was created by Congress through the defense appropriations act with a mandate to provide nonlethal anti-terrorism training. In fiscal year 2004, it began offering lethal training. In fiscal year 2006, Congress authorized the Defense Department to use $200 million of its operation and maintenance funds to equip and train foreign militaries for counterterrorism operations, so-called Section 1206 authority.

Creating these parallel training authorities and funding them through the defense budget allows the Pentagon to bypass the Foreign Assistance Act and limits congressional oversight and the normally more cautious State Department from these decisions. In particular, it could help to sidestep restrictions on training or arming human rights abusers. For example, it could be argued that the CTFP essentially serves the same purpose as the State Department’s IMET program but without any of the oversight or conditions.

The newly created Defense Department programs have provided training and equipment to all but four of the 25 countries examined. These programs come in addition to the aid provided through the five traditional major military assistance programs. For example, Yemen received more than $4 million in Section 1206 funding in fiscal year 2006 and an additional $200,000 in CTFP funding in fiscal year 2005, as well as $19.6 million in the five traditional types of aid in fiscal year 2006 and $14.6 million in such aid in fiscal year 2005.

Implications of Post-September 11 Policy Changes

Although the dollar value of the increased support for these countries could be seen as relatively insignificant compared to the considerably greater military assistance given to NATO allies or countries in the Middle East, the relative shift from no or very few sales to millions or billions in military assistance in some cases matters greatly. After all, these sales are likely to mark only the beginning of U.S. military and defense industry ties with these questionable and challenging allies. The U.S. defense industry often relies on initial sales in order to encourage future sales; develop maintenance, consulting, or upgrades contracts; and set the stage for larger-ticket items down the road. Using the war on terrorism as their entrance card, these traditionally undesirable partners have gotten their feet in the door and will likely enjoy long-term military relationships with the United States. Indeed, for the most part, sales and training to these countries have grown every year. The United States must question whether these new allies and these transfers are consistent with long-standing principles and tenets of U.S. law.

Second, these transfers could pose significant risks to long-term U.S. security and stability. From the outset, much of this military assistance is inconsistent with U.S. efforts to spread peace and democracy throughout the world. Beyond the theoretical or principled contradiction, however, the reality is that once these weapons leave U.S. possession and training courses are completed, the United States cannot control how or by whom the weapons are used or the training is implemented. The situation in Iraq demonstrates this reality: U.S. weapons intended for Iraqi security forces have ended up in the hands of insurgents in Iraq and Turkey. In many cases, the countries receiving U.S. military assistance have only pledged assistance to the war on terrorism and may in fact behave in ways the United States opposes. Yet, little can be done in response beyond limiting future weapons and training.

Moreover, the United States suffers from the possibility of blowback—having these weapons used against U.S. troops, civilians, or interests down the road—a phenomenon the United States has experienced firsthand in Afghanistan and Iraq. Weapons provided to the mujahideen in the 1980s were used by the Taliban and today’s Afghan rebels. In Iraq, weapons provided to Saddam Hussein during the 1980s remain in circulation and in the hands of Iraqi insurgents. The Bush administration’s policy of arming these new allies for short-term gains could put the United States at considerable risk and result in the United States facing its own weapons as political alliances deteriorate. Because the United States has increased transfers and training to countries that have dismal records on democracy, human rights, and loyalty, it is not too far a stretch to believe that some of these new allies could turn against the United States in the future.

The track records of many of these recipients—poor human rights records, prior support for and harboring of terrorists, or consistently undemocratic regimes—have been ignored by the Bush administration in an effort to bolster the war on terrorism. In doing so, the United States loses the ability to encourage a change in these bad actors’ behavior and does not guarantee that these short-term allies will remain long-term U.S. partners. Furthermore, the instability in many of these countries also raises questions about their future allegiance.

Ironically, the provision of weapons, aid, and training to some states might even ultimately serve to undermine the U.S. goal of eradicating terrorism. Countries benefiting from new access to weapons and training may see the continuation of the war on terrorism to be in their own best interest. They may not seriously commit to fighting terrorism because an end to terrorist threats, either real or perceived, might mean a decrease in aid. Thus, the actual dedication of many of these countries to U.S. goals and policies may leave much to be desired.


Rather than continuing its current approach, the United States would be better served by abiding by its long-standing arms export laws to ensure that weapons exports do not undermine security and stability, weaken democracy, support military coups, escalate arms races, exacerbate ongoing conflicts, or cause arms buildups in unstable regions or are used to commit human rights abuses. Although the war on terrorism has taken center stage, these principles and values should not be given an end run. This may mean that even close allies, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, which have worsening or no improvement in their human rights records, have their military assistance scaled back until substantial improvements are made. The United States should look at other ways of cooperating with new allies, such as economic and development assistance, and work to strengthen these partners’ democracies and institutions. More than ever, the United States needs strong partners that value human rights and the rule of law.

If arms and training are the only foreign policy tools the United States is willing to use, then they must be provided in line with U.S. law and under the strictest oversight and accountability. Programs should not be allowed to bypass U.S. law. New Defense Department programs should be scaled back and evaluated, rather than expanded, to ensure that they are upholding U.S. law. If the United States does sell weapons and provide training to questionable new allies, all effort should be taken to ensure that these weapons do not undermine U.S. security down the road.

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A Primer on U.S. Arms Export Policy

U.S. conventional arms export policy is codified in Presidential Decision Directive 34, set by President Bill Clinton in 1995. This directive guides U.S. arms exports decisions and establishes the foreign policy goals for U.S. conventional arms transfers. These include:

•  Ensuring that U.S. military forces enjoy technological advantages over potential adversaries;

•  Helping allies and friends deter or defend themselves against aggression, while promoting interoperability with U.S. forces when combined operations are required;

•  Promoting regional stability in areas critical to U.S. interest, while preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their missile delivery systems;

•  Promoting peaceful conflict resolution and arms controls, human rights, democratization, and other foreign policy objectives;

•  Enhancing the ability of the U.S. defense industrial base to meet U.S. defense requirements and maintain long-term military technological superiority at lower costs.

Still, the United States cannot necessarily sell weapons to any country that meets one of these conditions. Arms exports also must be consistent with three crucial laws and two implementing regulations.

The 1979 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) is one of the crucial laws. This statute stipulates the purposes for which weapons may be transferred (self-defense, internal security, and UN operations) and establishes the process by which the executive branch must give Congress advance notice of major sales. The AECA also requires a series of quarterly and annual reports from the Departments of Defense and State to Congress on overseas sales activity.

Executive Order 11958 delegates responsibility for the implementation of the AECA primarily to the State and Defense Departments. At the State Department, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls develops and updates the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which implements the AECA. These regulations contain a U.S. munitions list that covers all weapons regulated by the State Department. They also list those countries that are ineligible to receive weapons under U.S. law.

A second essential law is the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which guides provision of economic and military assistance to foreign governments. For example, this act requires that weapon exports not undermine long-term security and stability, weaken democratic movements, support military coups, escalate arms races or exacerbate ongoing conflicts. Nor are the exported weapons supposed to cause arms buildups in unstable regions or be used to commit human rights abuses.

The third major law is the 1970 Export Administration Act, which governs shipments of dual-use goods, technology and information with both military and civilian uses. The act lapsed in 1994 but has been retained under the emergency powers of the president. It is administered by the Department of Commerce through the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which govern the sales activities of exporters of these items, as ITAR does for munitions. The EAR contain the Commerce Control List, which includes certain ballistic missile production technologies, dual-use chemicals, shotguns, and police equipment.

These laws govern many different types of arms sales and military assistance programs. The largest sales programs are:

•  Foreign Military Sales (FMS): government-to-government sales negotiated by the Pentagon, in which the weapons come from existing Pentagon stocks or new production;

•  Direct Commercial Sales (DCS): arms sales concluded between U.S. weapons manufacturers and foreign clients managed by the State Department.

The largest military assistance programs are:

•  Excess Defense Articles (EDA): surplus or obsolete U.S. weapons given away for free or at a dramatically reduced cost to foreign governments;

•  Foreign Military Financing (FMF): grants to foreign governments that are used to purchase weapons, training, and other defense articles and services from the United States;

•  International Military Education and Training (IMET): grants for members of foreign governments and militaries to participate in any of more than 2,000 courses in U.S. military management and technical training.

Although much smaller in dollar value, the United States also offers military training separate from or part of other arms packages. Military training is an important foreign policy tool used to bolster support for U.S. values and interests in foreign governments and military institutions, as well as to establish common military goals, procedures, and mechanisms. The utilization of military training to build military and political relationships is part of an emerging trend that began at the end of the Cold War. In the last decade, the United States has trained more than 100,000 foreign soldiers, police, and civilians annually through these programs. Such training programs, which take place within the United States and in about 150 countries around the world, range from English-language training and counternarcotics strategies to preparation of forces for peacekeeping operations.


Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information (CDI), co-author of International Arms Trade (forthcoming), and co-author of Small Arms Trade (2006). Case studies of U.S. military assistance to each of the 25 countries discussed in this article are available at


1. Wade Boese, “U.S. Pakistani Arms Pipeline Stays Open,” Arms Control Today, December 2007, p. 29. Emergency rule lasted from Nov. 3 to Dec. 15, during which time Musharraf resigned from the military but retained his presidency.

2. Richard F. Grimmett, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1999-2006,” CRS Report for Congress, RL34187, September 26, 2007.

3. Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Mauritania, Nepal, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

4. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Thanks World Coalition for Anti-Terrorism Efforts,” Washington, DC, March 11, 2002  (hereinafter president’s remarks, March 11, 2002).

5. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Stabilizing Iraq: DOD Cannot Ensure That U.S.-Funded Equipment Has Reached Iraqi Security Forces,” July 31, 2007.

6. President’s remarks, March 11, 2002.

7. U.S. Department of State, “2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.”