By Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 12, 2009; A12
Tens of thousands of assault rifles and other firearms in Afghanistan are at risk of being stolen because U.S. officials have lost track of them, according to a congressionally ordered audit that warns that some weapons may already be in Taliban hands.
The audit by the Government Accountability Office found that inventory controls were lacking for more than a third of the 242,000 light weapons donated to Afghan forces by the United States -- a stockpile that includes thousands of AK-47 assault rifles as well as mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
There were no reliable records showing what ultimately happened to an additional 135,000 weapons donated by other NATO countries, the report said. Many of the weapons, supplied between 2004 and 2008, were left in the care of Afghan-run military depots with a history of desertion, theft and sub-par security systems that sometimes consist of a wooden door and a padlock, the report said.
The lax controls extended even to such sensitive equipment as night-vision goggles, which have long given U.S. troops a critical edge in fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's rugged terrain, the GAO found. Basic accounting procedures such as recording serial numbers were routinely skipped, placing millions of dollars of weapons "at serious risk of theft or loss," said the GAO report, which is expected to be presented today to a House oversight panel. A copy of the report was obtained by The Washington Post.
Lawmakers have begun pressing the Pentagon for explanations in advance of the report's official release. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) said the failures could lead to American soldiers being killed by insurgents using a weapon purchased by U.S. taxpayers.
"That's what we risk if we were to have tens of thousands of weapons we provided washing around Afghanistan, off the books," Tierney said in a written statement.
A Defense Department spokesman had no immediate response to the report yesterday.
The problems found in Afghanistan mirror those discovered during a similar audit two years ago in Iraq. There, at least 190,000 AK-47s and pistols imported into the country by the United States could not be accounted for, the GAO said in July 2007. That figure represented roughly 30 percent of all the small arms imported into Iraq for use by local forces in 2004 and 2005.
In that country as well, the U.S. military failed to set and follow appropriate accountability standards, the GAO said. Some of the arms, such as Glock automatic pistols, subsequently fell into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, based partly in the country's north, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union have labeled a terrorist group. Turkey complained to the Pentagon in 2006 and 2007 that arms diverted from Iraq were being used in crimes and assassinations inside its borders.
For the Afghanistan report, a GAO team toured the country last August and attempted to track various lots of weapons delivered to the war-torn country over a period of four years. The auditors found that inventory controls routinely used to track U.S. weapons were not applied in Afghanistan, in part because of manpower shortages and a lack of direction from the Pentagon, the report said. As a result, U.S. officials "cannot be certain that weapons intended for [Afghanistan's army] have reached those forces," it said.
U.S. military teams began attempting to correct the problems last June, shortly before the auditors arrived, the GAO noted.
A separate report by the Pentagon in October provides much of the explanation for the vulnerability of Afghanistan's donated weapons stocks: It said U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan had basically ignored their mandate to ensure the "accountability, control and physical security" of the arms given to Afghan forces under the $11.7 billion aid program, and in particular had neglected to record the weapons' serial numbers so that they could be monitored.
The inspector general's report, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, blamed the U.S. Central Command for failing to set appropriate standards and procedures for handling weapons imported into Afghanistan.
The report also criticized commanders of the U.S.-led unit charged with training Afghan police and military forces for failing to issue appropriate directives to training teams and mentors.
It said further that the local U.S. office charged with overseeing the $7.4 billion foreign military sales program to Afghanistan is too small and that its personnel lack sufficient rank, skills and experience to monitor whether associated arms are being diverted. Just nine people, led by an Army major, were assigned to oversee a program that disbursed more than $1.7 billion in 2007, in contrast to a team of 77 led by a major general that oversaw a similar program in Saudi Arabia that disbursed 60 percent less money.
None of the nine officers in Afghanistan had prior foreign military sales experience, a circumstance the report called improper "given the strategic importance to the United States military effort" of cultivating adequately armed Afghan forces.
The lack of adequate U.S. oversight left a gaping hole because Afghan security forces lack the capability to monitor the flow of military equipment, the Pentagon's inspectors found during their visits in October 2007 and April 2008. The head of the Afghan army's logistics unit told them he had no idea what arms units had already received, when supplies were arriving or who was sending them.
In an official response to the Pentagon report, Ellen E. McCarthy, a senior security official in the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, acknowledged that "the theft, sabotage, exploitation or misuse" of arms and explosives in Afghanistan would "gravely jeopardize the safety and security of personnel and installations worldwide." She also agreed that the U.S. Central Command needed to attach a higher priority to the problem.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.