Within the last month, the Defense Department announced that it would be purchasing over $700 million dollars worth of aircraft for the Afghan armed forces. In theory, members of the Afghan Special Mission Wing (SMW), the airborne component of the Afghan special forces, would be the ones flying these 48 aircraft. Of that total, 18 are fixed-wing PC-12 cargo planes coming from the Sierra Nevada Corporation, while the other thirty Mi-17 helicopters are being purchased through Russian state arms-dealer Rosoboronexport.
The Russian helicopters were ordered despite a specific ban from the Congress on buying from Rosoboronexport so long as the Russian company continues arming the Syrian government. However, the Pentagon determined that there was a vital need for the helicopters, justifying the purchase through using funds allocated to the 2012 fiscal year, rather than the 2013 funding pool to which the ban applied.
Now the Special Inspector-General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan (SIGAR) is questioning those purchases, finding it unlikely that they will ever be put to use after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. In its most recent report, the oversight body draws attention to the fact that the buying spree is coming at a time when the SMW is lacking the people needed to fly and maintain the aircraft. As of January, “only 7 of 47 pilots assigned to SMW were fully mission qualified to fly with night vision goggles, a necessary skill for executing most counterterrorism missions,” the report notes. Those seven pilots are part of a total of 180 personnel in the wing — less than a quarter of the total needed to have the SMW operate at full strength.
Aside from the lack of pilots qualified to fly the birds, the Afghans will have trouble keeping them in the air once the U.S. withdraws. At present, the SMW’s fleet is aging and in need of constant maintenance, meaning only half of the thirty Mi-17s they currently possess are mission-ready at any given time. According to the report, U.S. contractors conduct 50 percent of the repairs to the Russian-made Mi-17s the SMW currently owns and 70 percent of “critical maintenance and logistics management, as well as procurement of spare parts and material.” On top of that, the SMW’s mission has yet to be fully clarified, due to turf battles between the Afghan Ministries of Interior and Defense, each of which has a stake in the counter-narcotics and counterterrorism role that SMW was set-up to execute.
Furthering the problem, the two task orders from the Department of Defense for providing support for the SMW’s fleet are lacking in quality control mechanisms, coupled with the Pentagon not having enough personnel in Kabul who are able to oversee the contractors performing the maintenance. As a result, the SIGAR recommends suspending all activity under the contracts until the Afghan ministries sort things out between themselves and a memorandum of understanding is completed and signed. Beyond that, the office also recommends “setting clear personnel and maintenance and logistics support milestones for the SMW” and linking the “acquisition and delivery of the new aircraft to successful completion of these milestones.”
The frequency of SIGAR’s warnings have seemingly increased in recent months, as the 2014 deadline for removing all combat troops from Afghanistan draws nearer. In a series of reports over the past seven months alone, SIGAR’s office has called attention to fire-prone Afghan barracks, $7 million spent on vehicles that had already been destroyed, and $201 million worth of fuel purchased for the Afghan army that nobody can account for.
The U.S. is already destroying billions of dollars worth of equipment that it won’t be able to take with them after the pullout, making the purchase of billions more that will soon be inoperable puzzling to say the least. Even more confusing is that the Pentagon in choosing to defy both Congress and SIGAR in its purchasing choices and doing so with a company that provides the weapons that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to continue killing his people and fighting against rebel forces — who are themselves now being armed by the United States.