“Arming the Rebels” Has Pretty Much Never Worked

Guns and training, but no on-the-ground support, doesn’t amount to much

Daniel Leal-Olivas/Corbis

In Greece, Cuba, and Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola and, now, in Syria, “arming the rebels” has been one of the U.S.'s go-to approaches to international relations. Yet according to an internal report from the CIA, that strategy is a bad one, says the New York Times.

In every instance but one, arming the rebels just didn't really work. And even when it does, says the Times, there can be some nasty aftereffects.

Let's say there's some conflict or struggle or insurrection that American leaders want to sway one way or another but don't want to actually get involved in—no boots on the ground. Since its inception 67 years ago, the CIA has offered a different option: the agency will arm and train the existing opposition. Yet in almost all cases, says the Times, arming and training rebel forces, rather than fighting alongside them, “had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.”

The one time it did work, says the Times, was Afghanistan in the 1980s. But even there the local opposition wasn't working alone, and the goal wasn't to overthrow an existing leader but to wage a war of attrition against a larger Soviet army. The NYT:

“But the Afghan-Soviet war was also seen as a cautionary tale. Some of the battle-hardened mujahedeen fighters later formed the core of Al Qaeda and used Afghanistan as a base to plan the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. This only fed concerns that no matter how much care was taken to give arms only to so-called moderate rebels in Syria, the weapons could ultimately end up with groups linked to Al Qaeda, like the Nusra Front.”

If arming rebels does little to sway the outcome, that doesn't mean it's without risk. Last month, for instance, the House of Representatives gave the White House the go ahead to continue arming and training Syrian rebels.  Around the same time, the Guardian wrote that some of the weapons currently being used by ISIS fighters were originally supplied by U.S. and Saudi Arabia to rebels fighting Assad in Syria.

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