The United States military has developed a reputation for being careless with its resources and weapons. It has been unable to account for hundreds of millions — if not trillions— of dollars, and its armaments have ended up in the hands of ISIS. In the latest snafu to be officially acknowledged, as many as nine M1 Abrams tanks ended up in the hands of Iranian-backed militias last year.
The tanks reportedly fell into the hands of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iranian-backed militia fighting the Islamic State in Iraq last year (Iranian-backed fighting forces have been active and effective at beating back the terror group despite the U.S. government’s ongoing demonization of the Islamic Republic).
The militia’s acquisition of the tanks was confirmed in a Pentagon report to Congress released last week. According to “Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines | Quarterly Report to the United States Congress”:
“This quarter, the DoS [Department of State] acknowledged that some U.S.-provided military equipment sent to support the mission, including as many as nine M1 Abrams tanks, had fallen into the hands of Iranian-backed militias that fought against ISIS in Iraq.”
The incident was detailed later in the report:
“This quarter, the DoS acknowledged that some U.S.-provided military equipment was in the hands of non-authorized end-users. During the past quarter, news media reported that PMF units had obtained as many as nine M1 Abrams tanks.”
Though the State Department apparently acknowledged this last quarter, it appears the tanks fell into the hands of the PMF some time before, as an article from Business Insider in early 2016 documented the possibility that one faction of the PMF, had M1-Abrams tanks.
The recently published military report cites a news article from the New Arab, which reported in September of last year that the Iranian-backed forces claimed they seized the tanks from ISIS but also obtained them directly from the Iraqi military. The outlet reported:
“Two PMF militias – the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah – have posted pictures and videos of their fighters alongside M1 Abrams tanks draped with their banners and flags.”
Interestingly, the report also appeared to acknowledge that the tanks had previously fallen into ISIS’ hands after being given to the Iraqi army:
“These tanks, originally provided by the United States to the Iraqi Army, included some tanks seized by the PMF from ISIS after the fall of Mosul and the second battle of Tikrit.”
This aligns with reports from 2015 that the Iraqi Security Forces abandoned U.S. weaponry in Ramadi, including M1 Abrams tanks, that ISIS then seized. Though it’s not clear whether these are the exact same Abrams tanks, the tendency of US materials to go missing and end up in the hands of unwanted groups is apparent.
Eventually, according to the Pentagon report, after falling into the PMF’s hands, the tanks in question in the recent analysis were returned to the Iraqi army following efforts by the State Department.
“The DoS reported that the Iraqi government continued to address this issue and had obtained the return of several tanks to Iraqi Army control from the PMF during the quarter.”
Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Military Times they did not directly give the equipment to the PMF. “However,” he said, “we have discovered incidents where some U.S.-origin equipment, including M1 Abrams tanks, came into the possession of certain PMF groups.”
“This equipment was subsequently used by these groups in the fight against ISIS,” he said, adding that “all of these tanks were recently returned to Iraqi Security Forces custody.”
The New Arab report published in September observed that “If the US delivered M1 Abrams tanks to Iraq’s Defense Ministry despite knowing that they could be given to the PMF, the Pentagon might have violated the Leahy Law – which prohibits the US Defense and State Departments from providing military aid to security forces guilty of abusing human rights.”
Human Rights Watch accused certain elements of the PMF — a broad title for a collective of different fighting groups — of such abuses in a report published at the beginning of last year:
“Sunni forces within the Popular Mobilization Forces since the fight against ISIS in Mosul began, including unlawful detention, ill-treatment and torture of civilians, executions, and the use of child soldiers.”
Though those particular allegations concern Sunnis (and the Pentagon insists the PMF is comprised of a variety of demographics), the organization has also been accused of falling into Iran’s power sphere despite efforts by the Iraqi government to keep it under its control. According to a report from the Carnegie Middle East Center:
“[T]o many critics, the PMF symbolizes Iranian and Shia efforts to exercise supremacy over Iraq. Tehran has had a clear hand in coordinating with the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”
Donald Trump imposed a new round of sanctions against the IRGC in October, calling it a “corrupt personal terror force and militia” of Iran’s supreme leader.
Nevertheless, the PMF played an integral role in destabilizing ISIS’ power in Iraq. Considering the chaotic nature of tensions in the Middle East, it appears no side’s hands are clean. The U.S. has long empowered terrorist factions in Syria (whether intentionally or not) and contributed to the rise of both al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq. Similarly, the PMF is likely guilty of human rights abuses and has fiercely opposed the Kurdish push for independence; the Military Times observed that the Pentagon’s acknowledgment of their tanks falling into the PMF’s hands actually “lends credence to reports that depicted western tech as a pivotal part of the battle to retake Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga forces in October.”
Regardless of one’s opinion on which faction is acting morally, the fact that the U.S. allowed its own weapons to end up in the hands of a group closely aligned with its stated arch-nemesis, Iran, demonstrates just how convoluted the ongoing situation continues to be — and how incompetent the military is proving in its ability to resolve it.
As the report admitted:
“The challenges for the DoS and DoD to account for the whereabouts of arms and equipment transferred to the ISF have grown since the fight to drive ISIS from Iraq.”