WASHINGTON — For several years, Afghan police recruits under the tutelage of private U.S. government contractors couldn't understand why their marksmanship never improved.
The answer became clear earlier this year. Italian contractors also helping to train Afghan volunteers showed them that the sights on their AK-47s and M-16s had never been adjusted.
"We're paying somebody to teach these people to shoot these weapons, and nobody ever bothered to check their sights?" Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said, after relating that story at a hearing Thursday.
To McCaskill, who chaired the hearing of the Senate Contracting Oversight panel, it illustrated why the U.S. has spent more than $6 billion on private contractors, but the police-training program remains rife with problems.
"It is an unbelievable, incompetent story of contracts," she said. "For eight years we have been supposed training the police in Afghanistan. We've flushed $6 billion."
McCaskill learned of the marksmanship episode from Newsweek magazine, which looked into the $6 billion training program.
A spokesman for DynCorp International, Inc., the Falls Church, Va., company that had the training contract, denied the story about the shooting range. Jason Rossbach said its civilian trainers instruct police recruits to use rifles and pistols from various distances and postures.
The first step in working with AK-47s is a basic zero operation, which is sighting of the weapon to make sure its accurate, he said. If its a problem, they do it again. If that weapon is found to be out of alignment, its taken it out of action.
Improving and expanding the 90,000-man Afghan National Police to maintain stability and protect the population is crucial to the Obama administration's plan to begin reducing the American military presence in July 2011.
But the training contracts have been plagued by mismanagement. Investigations by the Government Accounting Office and the inspector generals from the Departments of State and Defense have sharply criticized both the contractors and the government oversight. They detailed a lack of supervision and controls over spending, among other failures.
"Just about everything that could go wrong here has gone wrong," Defense Department Inspector General Gordon Heddell told the subcommittee.
Moreover, the job of an Afghan police officer is exceedingly dangerous. The death rate has risen from about two dozen per month in recent years to about 125 each month, Heddell said.
The most pressing issue is that the program is now in contract limbo. Last month, the GAO blocked the Army from awarding a $1 billion police training contract. Among the bidders is likely to be Xe Services, the company which used to be known as Blackwater and which has its own troubled government contracting history.
Agency auditors said that the Army unfairly excluded other potential bidders and agreed with a protest by DynCorp International Inc. DynCorp has had a $1.2 billion training contract from the State Department.
McCaskill asked a Defense official how the Pentagon intended to provide the police training in light of the bidding problems.
"We don't have a final answer on that," said David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
"That's unacceptable," she said.
"I'm saying we haven't decided the final form of what we're going to do," Sedney said.
He said that the program has been "under-resourced and under-prioritized. The priority for this administration has been to refocus our effort."
McCaskill's colleagues on the subcommittee were equally dismayed. Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican of Massachusetts and the ranking member, asked who was "ultimately accountable" for the failings.
"There's been very little training and now we're looking to extend it," he said. "We're behind the eight-ball."
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