U.S. Shoots Itself In the Foot By Accidentally Arming ISIS
Policy + Politics

U.S. Shoots Itself In the Foot By Accidentally Arming ISIS


One of the earliest major setbacks in the war against ISIS came last June when the U.S.-backed Iraqi army was routed by Islamic militants in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. Government forces retreated from the Islamic jihadists’ assault. They left behind a trove of costly military hardware, including U.S.-made armored Humvees, trucks, rockets, machine guns and even a helicopter. 

Last weekend, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, gave Iraqi state television the first detailed accounting of those lost weapons. Some were old or barely functioning, but others were in good shape and of great value to the ISIS militants. 

Related: Why a Military Victory Over ISIS Is Wishful Thinking    

According to Reuters, the U.S.-made weaponry that fell into enemy hands including 2,300 Humvee armored vehicles, at least 40 M1A1 main battle tanks, 74,000 machine guns, and as many as 52 M198 howitzer mobile gun systems, plus small arms and ammunition. 

Although al-Abadi and other Iraqi and U.S. officials haven’t attached a dollar sign to the lost weaponry and vehicles, a back-of-the-envelope calculation of those losses might look something like this: 

  • 2,300 Humvee armored vehicles @ $70,000 per copy. Total: $161 million
  • 40 M1A1 Abram tanks @ $4.3 million per copy. Total: $172 million
  • 52 M198 Howitzer mobile gun systems @ $527,337 per copy. Total: $27.4 million
  • 74,000 Army machine guns @ $4,000 per copy. Total: $296 million 

The grand total comes to $656.4 million, but experts say those losses represent just a portion of the many hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S.-supplied military equipment that has fallen into ISIS’s hands and is being used against the U.S. and allied forces on the ground in Iraq and neighboring Syria. 

Related: ISIS Delivers ‘Shock and Awe’ with Arms from U.S., China, and Russia   

ISIS added to its armada of captured U.S. military vehicles and tanks when Iraqi Security Forces fled the provincial capital of Ramadi late last month and left behind their equipment, according to Military.com.  A Pentagon spokesman said that some artillery pieces had been left behind, but he could not say exactly how many. He said about 100 wheeled vehicles and dozens of tracked vehicles were lost to ISIS when the last remaining Iraqi defenders abandoned the city, which is 60 miles west of Baghdad. 

With hundreds of millions of dollars that they stole from banks and businesses, and profits from the black market sale of oil, ISIS has amassed a huge arsenal of weaponry, including heavy armored vehicles and artillery during its two-year offensive in Syria and Iraq.  According to the International Business Times, the armaments “are predominantly a mix of veteran Soviet tanks, large, advanced U.S.-made systems, and black market arms.”

Related: Why Obama’s Strategy Against ISIS Was Doomed to Fail

James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, warned last year that ISIS had assembled an extraordinarily formidable fighting force that would be difficult to take down. ““The problem [for the U.S. and its allies] is that ISIS is armed as well if not better than the other people they are fighting right now,” he said at the time.

Add to that the many hundreds of U.S.-manufactured weapons and vehicles left behind by Iraqi troops on the battle field, and ISIS apparently doesn’t have to worry about running short on weapons and ammunition

Gordon Adams, a military expert at American University, said on Wednesday that while gauging the extent of military equipment losses to ISIS is a risky game, “There is a fair amount of evidence that ISIS is walking off with not only tons of our equipment but a fair amount of the Syrian government’s equipment as well.” 

Whatever the numbers, Adams added, it’s an unusual and troubling phenomenon that “we’re helping to arm our enemy.” 

Related: Obama’s Approval Tanks Over the Economy and ISIS 

Others offer varying guestimates of the extent of the losses of U.S.-made military equipment and weapons to ISIS. “If you say they have captured the equivalent of at least three to four [Iraqi Army] divisions’ worth of equipment, much of it American-supplied, you would be very safe,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

While President Obama has vowed to “degrade and eventually destroy” the ISIS forces, recent setbacks in Ramadi and elsewhere have signaled that the war is not going well for the United States and its nearly two-dozen allies. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently publicly berated Iraqi troops for lacking the “will to fight” ISIS and for retreating from a showdown in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Then last Sunday, CIA Director John Brennan offered at best a perfunctory defense of the president’s air-strike strategy on CBS’s Face the Nation

In order to help replenish Iraq’s depleted military arms and equipment, the State Department last year approved a sale to Iraq of 1,000 Humvees, along with armor upgrades, machine guns and grenade launchers, according to Peter Van Buren of Reuters. The U.S. previously donated 250 Mine Resistant Armored Personnel carriers to Iraq, as well as huge amounts of material left behind when American combat forces departed Iraq in 2011. 

Moreover, the U.S. is shipping to Iraq 175 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 55,000 rounds of tank-gun ammunition, $600 million in howitzers and trucks, $700 million worth of Hellfire   missiles and 2,000 AT-4 rockets, according to Reuters. 

Michael Knights, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an authority on the Iraq war, cautioned yesterday that too much is being made of the loss of U.S.-made military equipment to ISIS. “A lot of that equipment was not operational when it was lost,” he said in an interview. “A lot of it was burned by ISIS. A lot of it has been subsequently destroyed by the coalition, and a lot of it has been used as suicide vehicles by ISIS.” 

“This is a no-kidding war,” Knights said, “and in serious wars you lose thousands of vehicles and you lose hundreds of artillery pieces, and the enemy captures it and use it against you.”

This article has been updated to correct the calculations of the value of weapons and equipment lost.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: