The murky world of military aid

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter

An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter takes position on the front line in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometers north-east of Mosul.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Tuesday the U.S. government is “working with the Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces, to get military equipment to the peshmerga."

Members of that Kurdish militia have been asking the U.S. for more aid, to help them fight Islamic militants. So far, the peshmerga have received some “light weapons,” but they say they need more of them, and bigger ones too.

When it comes to arming Kurdish fighters, the U.S. government has options.

“There are a number of ways,” says Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It depends on how quickly and how quietly we want to arm them.”

One way is above board. Many countries effectively write checks for weapons payable to the U.S. The government shoulders the risk. According to Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation, the Defense Department works with the State Department, and lawmakers get involved.

“It’s all there,” he says. “It’s all transparent. Then, of course, there are other agencies who do things differently.”

Ollivant is referring to one agency in particular: the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Normally speaking, the Defense Department deals with governments, and the CIA deals with non-state actors,” explains Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University.

The Pentagon regularly brokers weapons deals with other state governments, including the Iraqi central government, but Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region.  The Defense Department may not want to deal with a militia.

“As far as we can tell, yes, the CIA is now committed to provide weapons and ammunition directly to the peshmerga,” Biddle says. That has been widely reported, but a CIA spokesman declined Marketplace’s request for comment.

According to Biddle, if the CIA is involved, it does have the wherewithal to get weapons from U.S. allies, even international weapons dealers.

Harrison says we’re talking about weapons that are probably worth a few hundred million dollars altogether. In all likelihood, the CIA has money set aside to pay for stuff like this.  But, Harrison says, there is no way to know how much.

“We can’t see directly what the CIA receives in terms of its total budget,” Harrison notes. That is classified.

The Defense Department also has some budgetary flexibility. The Pentagon has $85 billion for what are called “overseas contingency operations.”

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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