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U.S. Weapons at War 2008: Coun

U.S. Arms Recipients, 2006/07: Eurasia

December 8, 2008 |

U.S. arms transfers and security assistance to Georgia and Turkey have raised particularly vexing questions for U.S. policymakers.In the case of Georgia, the question is how far to go in cementing a security alliance with the government in Tbilisi while carefully gauging the impacts on U.S.-Russian relations.With respect to Turkey, one key issue is whether the billions in U.S. weaponry provided to Ankara provide any leverage in moderating Turkey's behavior in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, where U.S.-supplied aircraft have been used to bomb Kurdish rebel groups.


Georgia's August 2008 intervention in the semiautonomous region of South Ossetia sparked a massive Russian retaliation that included bombing raids on major cities and towns, occupation of Georgian ports and highways, and destruction of military bases and weapons caches.

The primary responsibility for the violence in Georgia clearly lies with the main parties to the dispute, Russia and Georgia. Russia was at fault for intervening militarily against its much smaller neighbor, rather than taking a more measured response to Georgia's actions in South Ossetia. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was at fault for launching an attack on South Ossetia in an attempt to reintegrate it into Georgia against the will of the majority of its residents. At its core, the conflict is a case of dueling nationalisms. On the one side, Georgia wishes to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its full political control despite the fact that both regions fought wars in the 1990s to establish their semiautonomous status. Meanwhile, Russia is attempting to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia into its orbit while weakening the pro-U.S. government in Georgia by driving Saakashvili from power.[24]

At stake in the conflict between Russia and Georgia is control of a major pipeline running through Georgia that carries oil from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, and on through Turkey to Western markets. If the flow through this pipeline were disrupted, the only other route for this oil would be through Russia, giving Moscow additional leverage--particularly over Western Europe.[25]

It is possible that, rather than stabilizing the situation, U.S. arms and training programs for Georgia have made matters worse. The Bush administration's push to have Georgia and the Ukraine admitted to NATO (which is on hold for the moment due to opposition from other NATO member states) has been adamantly opposed by Russia, and may have been one factor in its decision to invade Georgia with the aim of weakening or eliminating the Saakashvili government. However, President Saakashvili seems to have misinterpreted the level of U.S. support for his government--given the levels of military and political support it has received from Washington in recent years--believing that he would be protected against Russian retaliation if he attacked South Ossetia.

There is no question that U.S. arms transfers and military training programs in Georgia have caused great consternation in Moscow, even before the current conflict. During the Bush administration alone, Georgia has received $132.5 million in weaponry under the Foreign Military Sales program, and U.S. trainers have been in and out of the country on a regular basis (see table 10). It is this ongoing involvement that prompted Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ivanov to decry the fact that Russian soldiers had been killed "by the Georgian army with American weapons, American ammunition, and American instructors preparing for this war."[26] Although it is not the only supplier of military equipment to Georgia, the United States is a major supplier of security assistance funding, having provided Georgia with nearly $700 million in grant aid since the start of the Bush administration.

Table 10
Major U.S. Security Assistance Programs to Georgia
FY 2002 through FY 2009 (dollars in thousands)

Program FY 2002-06 FY 2007 FY 2008a FY 2009b
Foreign Military Financing $73,684 $9,700 $9,000 $11,000
International Military Education and Training (IMET) $5,989 $1,160 $761 $1,000
Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism Demining and Related Programs (NADR) $11,133 $5,115 $3,210 $2,200
Freedom Support Actc $399,344 $58,000 $50,091 $52,000
Total $490,150 $73,975 $63,062 $66,200
TOTAL FY2002 through FY 2009 $693,387

Source: U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations, FY 2004 through FY 2009 editions.
aFY 2008 figures are estimates.
bFY 2009 figures are as proposed in the administration's budget.
cThe Freedom Support Act (FSA) program is comparable to the Economic Support Fund program, but directed toward the former Soviet republics. FSA funds may be used for economic or security projects.

The bulk of support for Georgia comes under the Freedom Support Act (FSA), a flexible program of grant aid that may be used for both civil and military purposes. The following description of how FSA funds from FY2003 were used in Georgia is illustrative:

The FREEDOM Support Act (FSA) funded Georgia Border Security and Law Enforcement (GBSLE) Program will continue to provide the necessary equipment (such as radios, remote sensors, surveillance and detection equipment), logistical and infrastructure support, and training to help the Georgian Border Guard, Coast Guard, Customs Service, and other security forces maintain an active presence on Georgia's land and sea borders. The GBSLE Program will continue to enhance Georgian capabilities to monitor and control territorial borders, patrol internal checkpoints, and prosecute criminals and terrorists. In addition, this program will continue to enhance interoperability between Georgian security forces and U.S. and Coalition forces. Assistance includes support for uniforms, transportation, infrastructure upgrades, training, command/control/communications, vessels and aircraft, spares and maintenance, radar and facilities operation and management, and new tactical utility vehicles.[27]

This level of involvement with Georgia's military and security forces has potential downsides, as noted by an unnamed "senior intelligence analyst" quoted in the New York Times: "We were training Saakashvili's army, and he was getting at least a corps of highly trained individuals, which he could use for adventures.… The feeling in the intelligence community was that this was a very high-risk endeavor."[28]

The Georgian example gets to the heart of one of the problems that arise when weapons are supplied for defensive purposes: they can also be used for offensive purposes, as with Georgia in South Ossetia. But if a much larger nation intervenes against a U.S. ally, will more arms and training really make a difference? Did U.S. arms and training encourage the Saakashvili government to make an ill-advised move against South Ossetia while providing little of value when it came to defending against a Russian attack?

The larger policy dilemma posed by the war between Georgia and Russia is whether to continue with the Bush administration's plans to promote the inclusion of Georgia and the Ukraine into the NATO military alliance. Proponents of expanding NATO to include Georgia suggest that if Georgia had been a member of the alliance Russia would have been deterred from attacking it. Opponents of bringing Georgia into NATO argue that it is not worth the cost of a potential war with Russia. Whatever happens, Georgia is likely to be a major recipient of U.S. arms and training for years to come. The question will be what kind of weaponry will the United States supply, at what cost, and with what kinds of support in terms of training, joint military exercises, or even the stationing of a small contingent of U.S. troops in Georgia to serve as a "tripwire" to deter further Russian aggression.


Since 1984, the Turkish government has been embroiled in an on-again, off-again war with the Partiya Karkenen Kurdistan (PKK), or Kurdish Workers Party, which has been fighting a guerrilla war for autonomy or outright independence for the heavily Kurdish southeastern region of Turkey. The conflict is believed to have claimed 30,000 to 40,000 lives between 1984 and 2001. The violence then subsided for several years, in part due to the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and his subsequent call for a ceasefire on the part of the PKK.[29]

Tensions flared again in 2003, and have not been resolved. In both the original and the new Turkish-PKK wars, the U.S. has served as Turkey's largest arms supplier. Most currently, during the Bush years, the U.S. transferred over $5.1 billion worth of weaponry to Turkey, while supplying $1.4 billion in security assistance funding (see table 11). A quick look at Turkey's armed forces shows a solid foundation of U.S.-supplied equipment, including over 200 F-16 combat aircraft, more than 3,500 M-48 and M-60 tanks, 2,800 M-113 armored personnel carriers, and three dozen Cobra attack helicopters.[30]

Table 11
Major U.S. Security Assistance Programsto Turkey
FY 2002 through FY 2009 (dollars in thousands)

Program FY 2002-06 FY 2007 FY 2008a FY 2009b
Economic Support Fund $1,210,000 -- -- --
Foreign Military Financing $148,928 $14,232 $6,819 $12,000
International Military Education and Training (IMET) $17,283 $3,500 $2,855 $3,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) -- -- $298 $300
Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism Demining and Related Programs (NADR) $5,348 $2,059 $2,187 $3,410
Total $1,381,559 $19,791 $12,159 $18,710
TOTAL FY2002 through FY 2009 $1,432,219

Source: U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations, FY 2004 through FY 2009 editions.
aFY 2008 figures are estimates.
bFY 2009 figures are as proposed in the administration's budget.

Turkish tactics during the first war with the PKK included the bombing and burning of thousands of Kurdish villages, resulting in high numbers of civilian casualties. Turkey's military tactics were roundly criticized, leading to congressional moves to delay a sale of U.S. attack helicopters to Ankara and calls to condition Turkey's potential accession to the European Union on an end to its brutal tactics and a general improvement in its human rights practices.[31]

In what is now widely seen as a missed opportunity, Turkish authorities failed to seek a formal peace agreement to end the war with the PKK. The renewal of the conflict was due to some degree to the ability of PKK fighters to reestablish bases over the Turkish border in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. By the Turkish government's own estimates, 1,200 people have died since the resumption of fighting in 2003, including 123 civilians. Since the beginning of the Iraq war and the increase in PKK attacks in 2003, Turkish forces have regularly bombed targets in northern Iraq, most recently in a flurry of raids during October 2008 sparked by an incident in which Kurdish rebels killed 15 Turkish soldiers.[32]

The weapons used in Turkey's battle with the PKK are largely of U.S. origin, including most critically the F-16 combat aircraft that are used in the air raids on northern Iraq. Although Bush administration officials have periodically criticized Turkey for its military activities inside Iraq, it has never threatened to cut off aid or arms sales to stop these attacks. Ironically, some of the weapons used by PKK fighters may also originate in the United States, as a result of "leakage" from the U.S.-Iraq arms pipeline. As the New York Times noted in November 2007, "…there is evidence that some American-supplied weapons fell into the hands of guerrillas responsible for attacks against Turkey…. Some investigators said that because military suppliers to the war zone were not required to record serial numbers, it was unlikely that the authorities would ever be able to tell where the weapons went."[33]

The ability of Washington to pressure Turkey is tempered by the complex web of ties between the two nations. As a major NATO ally, Turkey has played a leading role in the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, serves as a major logistical hub for the supply of arms and supplies to U.S. forces in Iraq, and, as President Bush put it during a January 2008 visit by Turkish president Abdullah Gul, provides "a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world, a constructive bridge."[34] Turkey is also the end point of the critical Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries oil from Azerbaijan to Europe and beyond.

Nor is a new administration in Washington likely to see a smoothing of U.S.-Turkish relations. If the Turkish military were to act on its periodic threats to remove the current moderate Islamist governing party from power Turkey's relations with Europe and the United States could be dramatically set back, and U.S. military aid could be curtailed. And Ankara's occasional independence from Washington on key issues--as evidenced by its unwillingness in 2003 to support a "northern front" in the U.S. intervention in Iraq and by its more conciliatory approach to the Iranian government--could cause tensions in the years ahead, depending on the direction of U.S. policy.


[24] Michael Dobbs, "Putin Is Not Hitler," Washington Post, August 17, 2008.

[25] Michael Klare, "Russia and Georgia: All About Oil," Foreign Policy in Focus, August 13, 2008.

[26] Helena Bedwell and Henry Meyer, "Rice in Georgia for Talks as Russia Backs Separatists," Bloomberg.com, August 15, 2008.

[27] U.S. Department of State, Congressional Justification for Foreign Operations, FY2009 ed., 363.

[28] Helene Cooper, C. J. Chivers, and Clifford J. Levy, "U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned into a Showdown," New York Times, August 18, 2008.

[29] Project Ploughshares, "Armed Conflicts 2008," Turkey profile, http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/ACRText/ACR-Turkey2.htm.

[30] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2008 (London: Routledge, 2008), 153–56.

[31] For background on Turkey's war with the PKK and the role of U.S. arms in the conflict, see Tamar Gabelnick, William D. Hartung, and Jennifer Washburn, "Arming Repression: U.S. Arms Sales to Turkey During the Clinton Administration," Federation of American Scientists and the World Policy Institute, October 1999, http://www.fas.org/asmp/library/reports/turkeyrep.htm .

[32] Project Ploughshares, "Armed Conflicts 2008," Turkey profile; and "Scores Dead as Turkey Battles Rebels in Iraq," Reuters, February 24, 2008.

[33] Eric Schmitt and Ginger Thompson, "Broken Supply Chain Sent Arms for Iraq Astray," New York Times, November 11, 2007.

[34] David Stout, "Bush Calls Turkey 'A Great Strategic Partner' After Talks with Gul," International Herald Tribune, January 8, 2008.

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