How Missing American Guns Might Be Fueling Terrorists In Afghanistan


An Afghan Army soldier picks up his weapon at a training facility in the outskirts of Kabul.

Over the past decade, the U.S. has poured unimaginable amounts of money into training and equipping Afghanistan’s army. Now, the Department of Defense office in charge of auditing the process is saying many of the 747,000 weapons given to the ANSF have gone missing and could end up fueling escalating attacks by Taliban insurgents if they fall into the wrong hands.

On Monday, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), charged with ensuring efficiency and preventing fraud, reported that it discovered a significant lack of accountability on both the part of the U.S. and Afghanistan’s military, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in tracking the hundreds of thousands of weapons the U.S has sold to Afghanistan since 2004. According to the report, the Pentagon set up two inventory systems to track the weapons in 2010, but incompatibilities between the programs led to “missing serial numbers, inaccurate shipping and receiving dates, and duplicate records,” that produced a logistical nightmare and caused some weapons to go missing even before they were shipped abroad.

The situation only gets worse inside Afghanistan. The report states that ANSF officials rarely take inventory of all the weapons they receive, and often by the time they do, many have already gone missing. As if poor record-keeping wasn’t enough, the real danger comes from the army’s inability to properly dispose of weapons, thousands of which have been piling up in excess as the ANSF attempts to scale down its huge supplies. Afghanistan’s military received 83,000 more AK-47s than needed in 2013 alone. Overwhelming numbers of extra weapons aren’t just a waste of money; they also threaten to trade hands and bolster the anti-government insurgents the U.S. and ANSF have been battling for years.

“U.S. and Coalition–provided weapons are at risk of theft, loss, or misuse,” the report said. “We’re very concerned,” John Sopko, the Inspector General, said in the report. “Weapons paid for by U.S. taxpayers could wind up in the hands of insurgents and be used to kill Americans and Afghan troops and civilians.” 465,000 of the weapons sold to the ANSF are small arms such as rifles, grenade launchers, and machine guns. These are the weapons of choice for terrorists because they are highly portable and can be used in guerrilla combat.

Although Afghanistan is nowhere near returning to the state collapse of the 1990s that gave rise to the Taliban regime, which the U.S. overthrew in 2001, Kabul’s control over outlying districts has definitely started to fray over the past year. While insurgents haven’t been able to capture any major towns or cities yet, they have mounted increasingly large attacks and cost the ANSF a record number of casualties in 2013. Still, President Karzai has refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would permit a limited number of international and U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after December 2014. Though both men vying to replace Karzai have pledged to sign the BSA, in the event that the current political turmoil in Afghanistan prevents that, it will leave the international community with little choice but to let Afghanistan fend for itself.

While the U.S. supplies huge amounts of military aid across the globe, it has been less keen on developing nonproliferation programs with other U.N. member states to stop the illicit trade in small arms. In 2001, the U.S. and a small group of states including China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Russia voted to block the creation of a more comprehensive system for monitoring weapons proliferation. They argued that existing standards set up under international law were doing enough to check the illegal flow of weapons. But a look at the growing power of insurgencies over the past several years suggests otherwise. Infamous terrorist groups like ISIS have stunned the world by overpowering well equipped armies, often using illegally smuggled or captured weapons.

Ultimately, ensuring accountability over future arms sales may do more to counter terrorism around the globe than dumping huge shipments of weapons on foreign armies incapable of tracking them.

Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.