WASHINGTON — Thousands of U.S. weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, may be in Taliban or al-Qaida hands in Afghanistan because of lax controls, congressional auditors warned on Thursday.
The Pentagon has failed to track an estimated 87,000 weapons given to Afghan security forces, one-third of the 242,000 the U.S. government shipped between December 2004 and June 2008, the Government Accountability Office said.
A 46-page report by the GAO, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, said there had been no monitoring of a further 135,000 weapons donated by NATO allies to the poorly paid and corruption-rife Afghan army and police.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon had taken action on the report's recommendations for tracking of serial numbers and physical inventories of weapons given by both the United States and allies.
"We take our responsibility with regard to accountability of weapons seriously," he told reporters. "I think the record will show that our performance on this has improved over time for any number of reasons."
Under-staffed U.S. military officials neglected to record serial numbers or conduct on-site inventories once the weapons were delivered, the report said.
"Given the unstable security conditions in Afghanistan, the risk of loss and theft of these weapons is significant," said the evaluation, which was submitted to a House of Representatives hearing Thursday.
Asked whether U.S. weapons could already be under Taliban or al-Qaida control, GAO international affairs director Charles Johnson cited military reports about "the theft of weapons and weapons potentially being sold to enemies."
John Tierney, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, gave an emotive summary of the problem.
"What if we had to tell families not only why we are in Afghanistan, but why their son or daughter died at the hands of an insurgent using a weapon purchased by U.S. taxpayers?" the Democrat told the hearing.
"But that's what we risk if we were to have tens of thousands of weapons we provided washing around Afghanistan, off the books."
The report mirrored GAO findings in August 2007 that the Pentagon had lost track of nearly 200,000 weapons given to security forces in Iraq.
Having toured Afghanistan in August 2008, GAO inspectors wrote: "Lapses in accountability occurred throughout the supply chain.
"This was primarily due to a lack of clear direction from Defense and staffing shortages."
Lack of manpower has long worried US commanders in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is expected shortly to decide on a request from Gen. David McKiernan for up to 30,000 extra troops to combat the resurgent Taliban.
Aside from M-16 rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortars, the GAO report found inadequate oversight of 2,410 night-vision goggles issued to the Afghan National Army.
The Pentagon waited 15 months, until October 2008, before it started monitoring the end use of the high-tech devices, which give a crucial edge on the nocturnal battlefield, and 10 remained unaccounted for.
The GAO said that at the Afghan end, corruption and illiteracy were major impediments to keeping track of the weapons.
Security was often risible, with just a wooden door and a miniature padlock guarding an arms room in one northern Afghan police station visited by the GAO inspectors.
At the Afghan army's central weapons depot in Kabul, the team found "guards sleeping on duty and missing from their posts." A subsequent audit by the US military found 47 pistols had been stolen from the depot.
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