National Security

Lost in Afghanistan: U.S. can’t track weapons it sends

The ANA (Afghan National Army) uses the AK-47, the most common rifle in the world as their main weapon. (Aaron Suozzi/Fort Wayne News-Sentinel/MCT)
The ANA (Afghan National Army) uses the AK-47, the most common rifle in the world as their main weapon. (Aaron Suozzi/Fort Wayne News-Sentinel/MCT) Fort Wayne News-Sentinel/MCT

The Pentagon has shipped Afghan security forces tens of thousands of excessive AK-47 assault rifles and other weapons since 2004 and many have gone missing, raising concerns that they’ve fallen into the hands of Taliban or other insurgent rebels.

John F. Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, found in a report released Monday that shoddy record-keeping by the Defense Department, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police has contributed to the failure to track the small arms.

The Pentagon is still sending Afghanistan weapons based on its peak 2012 levels of army and police personnel, even as those numbers have declined, Sopko found.

“The scheduled reduction in Afghan National Security Force personnel to 228,500 by 2017 is likely to result in an even greater number of excess weapons,” the report said. “Yet DOD continues to provide ANSF with weapons based on the (2012) ANSF force strength of 352,000 and has no plans to stop providing weapons to ANSF.”

Congress has made the Pentagon responsible for tracking all U.S. small weapons and auxiliary equipment sent to Afghanistan, which have totaled 747,000 rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers and shotguns worth $626 million since 2004.

“However, controls over the accountability of small arms provided to the Afghanistan National Security Forces are insufficient both before and after the weapons are transferred,” Sopko concluded in the report.

The Pentagon said in response to the audit that it has no authority to compel the Afghan government to perform a complete small-weapons inventory as Sopko recommended, and that the Afghanistan government, not the United States, is responsible for determining whether there are excessive weapons.

“The DOD does not have the authority to recover or destroy Afghan weapons,” Michael J. Dumont, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, wrote to Sopko in response to his findings.

Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, said he wasn’t surprised by Sopko’s findings of loose weapons in the war-torn nation. A former strategic adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, he has visited there more than a dozen times since the U.S. invasion in October 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gouttierre said the issue of missing weapons is part of a larger problem in which billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Afghanistan has been siphoned off by waste, corruption and mismanagement.

“It’s very evident to me that our government has been looking the other way for a long time,” Gouttierre said. “Everything after 2003 was Iraq-focused. In Afghanistan, we kind of threw money at programs without any real supervision that would be required of something this massive.”

The current U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan will see most American troops gone this year, with the last combat brigades scheduled to leave by the end of 2016. Inspectors working for Sopko found missing weapons during visits between May 2013 and June 2014 to four central weapons depots in Afghanistan belonging to the army or the police.

During a visit to the central supply depot of the Afghan National Army, which is “managed by Afghans with the assistance of U.S. advisers,” the depot’s records showed it as possessing 939 M-16 rifles, but the inspectors could find only 199.

The Pentagon has supplied 83,184 more AK-47s to Afghan security forces than they have said are needed, the U.S. inspectors found.

“Without confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to account for or properly dispose of these weapons, SIGAR is concerned that they could be obtained by insurgents and pose additional risks to Afghan civilians and the Afghan National Security Forces,” the report said.

A primary cause of the overall problem is that the Defense Department uses one information system to record weapons sent from the United States but employs a separate digital system to track weapons as they arrive in Afghanistan.

The two systems are riddled with inconsistencies and redundancies, the audit found.

To make matters worse, the Afghan National Army uses yet another tracking system, which relies on automated inventory management, and the Afghan National Police have no standard accounting system.

“The Afghan National Police uses a combination of hard-copy documents, handwritten records and some Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to maintain inventory records,” Sopko’s report said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of John F. Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.