A diplomatic cable just released by the whistle blower site Wikileaks shows how the US embassy in Prague tried to smooth over the sale of excess Soviet-era ammunition from the Czech Republic to send to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Authored by then-US Ambassador to the Czech Republic William J. Cabaniss in 2005 and labeled “confidential,” the cable outlines how the embassy in Prague proposed to create a mechanism that would facilitate the sales of surplus Czech ammunition via US contractors to the two trouble spots.
The Czech Republic was awash with ammunition after being “the forward ammo depot” of the Soviet bloc, Cabaniss wrote in the cable. “That fact, combined with the recent draw-down in the number of Czech troops from over 130,000 to roughly 30,000, means there are massive surpluses of Soviet-era ammunition in the Czech Republic,” he observed.
At the time, the Czech army did not have sufficient storage facilities for the ammunition or money to build new ones and was keen to sell the ammo. It fell, however, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which oversaw arms sales via the 160 companies registered for the purpose under the country’s liberal licensing rules of the early 1990s.
Foreign Ministry caution
While the ministry was usually keen to look kindly on requests to sell ammunition to the US government or American companies, the cable describes how it occasionally got cold feet about deals where the goods were destined for Iraq and Afghanistan. “If the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] has any questions about the sale itself, or the supporting documents, they are likely to withhold approval of the export application,” the cable warned.
The US Embassy in Prague, referred to as “post,” therefore suggested that an existing informal arrangement — where it tried to smooth the path of the ammo sales by seeking out the information needed by the Czech ministry, or finding key contacts in Iraq and Afghanistan — be put on a more regular and permanent footing.
The ad hoc arrangement “involved an unnecessarily long chain of passed messages,” the cable says, with the embassy suggesting time could be saved if it were given the names of contacts in Kabul and Baghdad who could be contacted directly from Prague.
Unsuspected Chinese involvement
An extra bonus of such a mechanism would be that US contractors buying arms would not feel the necessity of employing as a middleman or subcontractor a Czech firm — which might turn to alternative sources if it could not get all the arms required locally. “Although there are massive surpluses in the Czech Republic, not all firms have access to all of the material. Czech firms might contract to supply more than they have access to domestically and then try to make up the difference with imports from other countries, including countries of concern,” the cable cautioned.
The embassy said it could help US contractors get a clearer picture of where the arms were being sourced — and who was involved — by looking at the documentation that would have to be handed by the Czech contractor to the Foreign Ministry, including import details. It highlights the fact that one of eight contracts at that time being processed by the ministry, which involved up to 150 million rounds of ammunition, involved a Chinese subcontractor of which the US Army office dealing with the contract was unaware of.
The outcome of the request for the new system to smooth Czech arms sales is not known. The cable was written at the height of the Iraqi insurrection, two years after the invasion of the county by US and British forces on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found. May 2005, a month before the Prague embassy cable was written, was the bloodiest month in the insurrection up to that date.
In Afghanistan, insurgents learned the lesson from Iraq and mounted more suicide bombings in 2005, with a dramatic rise in casualties.