Afghanistan’s gun problem: Too many weapons, not enough oversight

Government watchdog: US provided Afghan forces with more guns than necessary and failed to keep track of the weapons

Seized weapons at an empty bazaar during a military operation against Taliban militants in Miranshah in North Waziristan, Pakistan, July 9, 2014. A U.S. report found that from 2010 to 2013, Afghan forces received more than 112,000 small arms than needed.
Aamir Quershi / AFP / Getty Images

A new report raises concerns that weapons supplied by the United States to Afghanistan could wind up in the hands of the Taliban and other groups seeking to destabilize the Afghan government.

Released Monday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government office that oversees U.S. reconstruction spending, the report found that not only do Afghan security forces have an oversupply of weapons and equipment but also that they have serious problems keeping track of those weapons.

In its audit of weapon shipments from the United States to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) from 2010 to 2013, SIGAR found that the ANSF received more than 112,000 small arms beyond what was required and that “the scheduled reduction in ANSF personnel by 2017 is likely to result in even greater excess weapons.” The number of Afghan troops is expected to decline from 352,000 to 228,500 by 2017.

“Given the Afghan government’s limited ability to account for or properly dispose of weapons, there is a real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents,” the audit concluded.

Shoddy record-keeping

The report placed much of the blame on the myriad systems used to track the shipment and receipt of weapons and equipment by both the Afghans and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The DOD uses one system to track the shipment of weapons to Afghanistan and another to track their receipt, leading to errors and discrepancies, SIGAR said. When SIGAR compared the two systems, the information often didn’t match, and some records were duplicated, while others were incomplete.

The DOD was not in compliance with its internal operating procedures, SIGAR found. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 requires the DOD to include detailed information on the origin, shipping and distribution of small arms as well as the registration of their serial numbers.

On the Afghan side, the Afghan National Army uses an inventory management system that U.S. military officials said was unreliable because the data were often entered incorrectly. The Afghan National Police, meanwhile, uses handwritten records and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to maintain its inventory records, making the prospect of a unified electronically accessible system even more difficult.

The oversupply of weapons could play into the hands of fighters seeking to destabilize Afghanistan. The Afghan National Army has at least 83,000 more AK-47 automatic rifles than it needs, SIGAR found, and in the report DOD officials are quoted as saying, “They do not currently have the authority to recapture or remove weapons that have already been provided to the ANSF.”

SIGAR recommended that the DOD reconcile its tracking systems within six months, complete an inventory check with the ANSF of the weapons transferred “and develop a plan that addresses the potential future excess of small arms if the ANSF force strength is reduced.” The report suggests the agency consider destroying weapons rather than risk their being sold on the black market or to militias.

The DOD told SIGAR that it only “partially concurred” with recommendations that the Afghans conduct their own inventory checks and also destroy or recover excess weapons, saying the DOD doesn’t have that authority. “However, U.S. forces in Afghanistan can assist the Afghans with determining whether they have excess weapons and help identify disposition options,” the DOD said.

After the U.S. leaves

The report comes as many Afghan experts are questioning whether the country’s security forces can stand on their own after the U.S. military and its international partners withdraw. Political uncertainty has gripped Kabul since April’s inconclusive presidential election, while major bombings and attacks by the Taliban continue.

There is already some evidence that unaccounted-for weapons are ending up in the wrong hands. A report in December by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting found, for example, that Taliban fighters accepted deliveries of weapons from corrupt police in eastern Ghazni province. In the report, the nonprofit journalism group said that weapons and extra ammunition were being traded “in straight business transactions, as ‘tribute’ … or as a result of Taliban infiltration of the security forces.”

SIGAR’s report on weapons is just its latest to question the billions in U.S. spending in Afghanistan. Among the objects of SIGAR’s other recent investigations: a $3 million food-storage facility that was never used and a faltering $34 million initiative to develop a market for soybeans, which are not traditionally farmed or eaten by Afghans.

With the impending end of official U.S. combat operations this year and the expected withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2016, SIGAR said, the fate of the unaccounted-for weapons poses an even greater security risk to the future stability of Afghanistan.

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