The Pentagon has shipped hundreds of thousands of small arms to Afghanistan over the past decade for that country's Army, while creating an elaborate system to track their whereabouts, in hopes of keeping them out of the wrong hands.
Unfortunately, the system failed, according to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and for reasons that could easily have been foreseen.
The bookkeeping has been so slipshod that it's not possible to say how many weapons are missing. At one place the auditors looked, the Afghan National Army Central Supply Depot in Kabul, the auditors looked at records for 4,388 small arms. But only 3,837 of those arms — a subset of the total there — could be located, representing an error rate of 12 percent.
It turns out there are three databases meant to track the small arms, which include rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers and shotguns. One is a Defense Department listing of all those shipped from the United States. The second is a Defense Department listing of all those received in Afghanistan. They rely heavily on the serial numbers of the arms.
But these numbers must be entered manually, and the two databases — one showing shipments and one showing receipts — are inexplicably not linked together. The results are not pretty: Of the 474,823 serial numbers recorded in the second database, for example, 203,888 had missing information or were duplicates, according to the report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko.
More than 20,000 serial numbers in each of the DOD databases were repeated two or three times, the report said.
The third means of accounting is a database kept by the Afghan National Security Force, which relies on what Sopko's report called "a commercial, off-the-shelf inventory software system" that was "not designed to account for weapons." It does not record the serial numbers of the guns at all, and relies on hand-written records and occasional Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.
The report said that because of the unsatisfactory data, there is "real potential" for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents.
The inspector general report recommended that DOD reconcile its two databases and correct all data errors within six months. It also recommended that the Pentagon work with Afghan forces to complete a full inventory of small arms, and determine how to recover or destroy excess weapons.
In response to the first recommendation, Michael Dumont, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, said his department is now merging the two databases into a single system to track these weapons — 13 years after the U.S. intervention there began. He said it would be completed within six months, as most U.S. forces move towards the door. They also said that while they cannot compel the Afghan government to conduct a more comprehensive inventory, they will request one.
In response to the second recommendation, he said without explanation that a one-time inventory wouldn't solve the inventory problems. But small arms transfers might be dependent on full inventory checks in the future, he said.
The inspector general called these ideas "positive steps toward better weapons accountability."