In their fight to overthrow the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the rebels in Libya have resorted to many forms of scrounging to arm themselves, step by step, for a war they did not foresee.
They have looted state arsenals. They have bought weapons from opportunists who looted weapons beside them and then put the liberated weapons up for sale. They have lifted weapons from government troops they have wounded, captured or killed. They have assembled makeshift weapons and modified weapons designed for other uses. And they have ventured onto foreign markets to buy items of high utility but limited supply locally, including optical scopes for FN FAL rifles, which have become the sniper-rifle-of-choice.
As the war nears the end of its fourth month, the rebelsâ€™ behavior has illustrated in fine-grained detail many of the ways that military firearms and munitions can change hands as they slip from government control. And it has drawn in sharp relief the security paradox presented by fighters who have broad international support but limited arms. More weapons might help the rebels succeed (assuming they use them effectively, which is often not the case). But more weapons would also enable a mostly disorganized and an erratically led force to commit abuses on a broader scale. And the weapons could then be expected to drift to other conflicts and high-crime areas, and last many decades.
That said, no one would seriously dispute that the rebelsâ€™ state of supply is well below the scale of their ambitions, and that this has created predictable behaviors.
First, more about the poor state of supply. Have a look at the photograph below. If ever there was an indication of undersupply, it is a scene like this one, of a rebel at a checkpoint with an assault rifle that has been all but ruined by flame. If this is not scrounging, what is? This rifleâ€™s butt stock has been burned away, as has its forward pistol grip. This is a Romanian Kalashnikov, and before it was roasted it had the peculiar wooden foregrip of the Romanian cold-war-era line. You canâ€™t see that foregrip now, because it has been turned to charcoal and ash, exposing the barrel and gas tube directly above this rebelâ€™s left index finger. This weapon might fire, but it canâ€™t be handled like a modern firearm, and it certainly wonâ€™t be accurate without any means to hold it so the sights can be used.
There are similar indicators wherever the rebels are found. They share rifles at the frontlines, many other rebel checkpoints have few weapons or little ammunition, and fallen rebels are often stripped of their rifles and cartridges before being raced away in an ambulance. In this way, these weapons never leave the front and are available for some of the unarmed men waiting to join in. These are sure signs of a military movement trying to cope with a dearth of supply.
And there is another indication as well â€“ price.
Last month, an article in The New York Times described the rebel sealift to the isolated western Libyan city of Misurata, which has depended on smuggled supplies, including weapons, to withstand being besieged by the Qaddafi governmentâ€™s troops.
Space limits in the paper prevented a fuller discussion of how some of those weapons have been procured, though the article hinted at some of the rebelsâ€™ frustrations with their fellow countrymenâ€™s profiteering in the small-arms trade at the uprisingâ€™s expense. This excerpt from the article provides the context:
Most of the weapons, rebels said, have been acquired through a buyback program in which donorsâ€™ money underwrites the purchase of weapons looted by citizens from Qaddafi armories in February, when the uprising began. While many of the fighters in Misurata have waited for desperately needed rifles, some of their countrymen in the relative safety of eastern Libya have withheld weapons they obtained free, waiting for better terms of sale.
â€œSome of them, they give us the guns,â€ Mr. Alsharkasy said. â€œThey say, â€˜Oh, this is for Misurata?â€™ And they give it for free. But others? They like money.â€
He made a small scowl. â€œNo,â€ he said. â€œThey love money.â€
To get a fuller sense of the shape this profiteering takes, itâ€™s helpful to look at prices, which explain much.
While there is no typical price for a modern assault rifle, because of the many variables of supply and demand and the many different designs of rifles for sale, a few rough figures can be helpful for framing what is happening in Libya.
An unused assault rifle often can be bought wholesale for anywhere from several hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on the savvy of the buyer, the quantity purchased and some of the optional features, like rail systems for mounting lights, optical sights or other devices. (I say â€œunused assault rifle,â€ as opposed to â€œnew,â€ because there are lots of rifles available that were made decades ago, during the cold war, and have been stockpiled since. These weapons are offered, either directly or through a network of middlemen and brokers, by sellers in many former Eastern bloc countries.)
In Libya, the two most common rifles in rebel possession are the FN Herstal FAL and a mix of Kalashnikov variants. For Kalashnikov variants, a reasonably useful set of data is available on pricing, which tell us that in Africa a used Kalashnikov can typically be had for considerably less than $1,000, often for several hundred dollars a piece, and sometimes, though rarely, for less than $100.
This spring in eastern Libya, the prices for Kalashnikovs and FN FAL rifles crested at top-dollar war prices â€“ as much as $2,500 for a rifle in good condition. Even heavily used specimens fetched more than $1,500 each, said Alaadin Alsharkasy, one of the organizers of rebel weapon purchases in Benghazi, the rebel capital.
The increase in rifle prices created curious but readily explicable price discrepancies. Weapons that are technically more powerful, including rocket-propelled grenades and PKM machine guns, have been costing $700 to $900, rebels said. Similar prices were being asked for still larger and much more powerful weapons, including 12.7-millimeter DShK machine guns and M40 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, which rebels put to extensive use in Misurata. These weapons, objectively fearsome, can cost one-third the price of an assault rifle. Sometimes such weapons are even free, Mr. Alsharkasy said, â€œbecause many people do not know how to use themâ€ and simply turn them over to the rebels.
When a small and readily transportable commodity like an assault rifle suddenly has a value in excess of $2,000, market forces and market behaviors follow. One result is that the war in Libya has become, in terms of its equipment costs, very expensive for rebel logisticians, and resupply has been slow.
Journalists who have ridden on the tug boats and fishing boats that have resupplied Misurata have often reported seeing few weapons on board. â€œWith every tug maybe there are 20 Kalashnikovs, 7 FNs, 4 DShKs, something like this, â€ Mr. Alsharkasy said â€“ a statement consistent with what has been independently observed.
What does all of this mean? At market prices, the rebels are paying as much as nearly $70,000 to equip perhaps 30 men with weapons for battle. And given that much of this money has been paid to fellow Libyans who are not exposed to the fighting but profit from it, these prices have been a source of anger among those who are actually taking the physical risks in this war.
Remember that beneath the rebelsâ€™ public-relations effort, the war in Libya is, like any other, attended by all sorts of human behaviors, many of them self-serving and removed from the revolutionariesâ€™ ideals. Publicly unstated motives are in play, including the familiar blood games associated with moving guns.
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Now here is another way to look at this. In a country where the government is out of control and is murdering it’s own citizens to preserve it’s power, the population is almost without the means to fight. I am guessing that unlike the US, the average Libyan does not have access to military grade weaponry in the usual course of their lives. Juxtapose that with our country, where in most states you can wander down to the local gun shop, and wander back out again with a semi auto version of the AK 47, as many magazines and crates of ammo as you can carry and a smile on your goofy face.
There are those out there who want to talk about the average citizen’s ability to stand up to the government and fight oppression but want to do so without consequences. People like Pennsylvania State Rep. Scott Perry who sidestepped the issue when he let his tongue get ahead of his political wits. And then there are those who are unafraid to tell it like it is, that if the government continues to rape its people with it’s current policies eventually people are going to stand up, raise up the middle finger, and show these power hungry assholes who owns this country.
I know I know, big talk from behind a keyboard. Yeah, maybe it is. But there is one thing that is for sure, if the shooting does start, we won’t have to raid dead bodies for weapons and ammo to defend ourselves from our government.