The Struggle of Tracking Arms in Afghanistan
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Before stepping inside the underground bunker at the Afghan National Police headquarters in this southern city last week, U.S. troops were warned that there might be some unexploded mortar shells rolling around.
One by one, the troops pulled out long wooden boxes filled with weapons and ammunition seized from Taliban fighters and other insurgent groups.
Many of the decrepit weapons are common finds for them. Soviet-era AK-47s. DHSKA heavy machine guns. A couple of times, they've found something even rarer: a Pattern 1914, a British-designed rifle deemed obsolete in the 1940s.
"It's mind-boggling to see some of this stuff," Marine 1st Lt. Jon Farrar said. "They've had this hoarding mentality, thinking maybe they can fix them. Many of these weapons, if I tried to fire them, they'd probably blow up."
Even though some of those discoveries would thrill weapons collectors, they are not what the Americans are looking for. Farrar is part of Joint Task Force 1228, a group created by Congress last year to ensure better accounting of the 418,000 weapons, 51,000 vehicles and millions of rounds of ammunition the United States has purchased to equip the Afghan security forces.
The task force follows a similar effort created in Iraq after Congress learned that many of the weapons purchased to arm Iraqi security forces were ending up in enemy hands. Both programs track each defense item purchased by the United States from the factory to each police station and army post. That helps determine how weapons ended up in enemy hands and shows Afghan and Iraqi forces how to better manage their arsenal.
Members of the group travel to all parts of Afghanistan, from massive depots in Kabul and Kandahar to rural police stations and hilltop checkpoints. They meticulously record and photograph serial numbers found on each weapon, later entering that information in a database.
One recent stop was just outside the Kandahar Airfield, where coalition forces have helped an Afghan National Army commando unit build a base.
When Hector Del Valle arrived at the unit two years ago, he said the idea of checking weapons in and out was laughable. Monthly inventories were unheard of. The possibility of losing track of weapons - either losing them or having them sold - was big.
"They'd get the weapons, put them to the side and that's it," said Del Valle, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy and mentors the commandos as a civilian contractor.
Now, a well-stocked, well-secured armory has row after row of U.S.-purchased M-4 carbine assault rifles - the same kind of rifles used by many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On a recent night mission, a commando had his helmet-mounted night vision goggles shattered when he jumped out of a helicopter. The team scoured the ground on hands and knees and brought back as many pieces of the goggles as they could.
Night vision technology is especially important because it gives coalition forces an upper hand against the Taliban, said Army Lt. Col. Michael Rayburn, chief of the task force.
U.S. troops wear items that are easily recognizable by the goggles, making it easy to find one another on the battlefield but potentially serving as a flashing bull's-eye if enemy fighters have night vision goggles.
That is why the goggles, which cost $3,000 to $7,000 apiece, are the only item task force members are required to see with their own eyes at least once a year. The United States has provided the Afghans with 3,800 sets, and only one pair has been reported lost.
Shortage of supplies
Operations such as the one run by the commandos are rare.
Bedmellah Waziri, a lieutenant colonel in the Afghan National Army, said the military had to start from scratch after 2001 because the Taliban had ruled the country for nearly a decade beforehand and gutted the organization of the army and police.
"The Afghan army lost everything," he said. "There was no control."
Creating a nationwide accountability system has been difficult.
During a surprise visit to a small police station near the Old City neighborhood of Kandahar, rifles lay unsecured in a hallway. Officers had to send word through the neighborhood for colleagues to bring in weapons for inspection. Ammunition clips used by those officers spit out a rainbow of mismatched bullets.
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," Abdul Salaam, the assistant police chief of the station, said of the ammunition they have.
Salaam complained that the supply line starting with the Ministry of Interior, which runs the Afghan National Police, was so flawed that there was a severe ammunition shortage. Each officer at the station is given two clips of ammunition, which can be used up very quickly in a heavy firefight.
"When we finish, what do we do?" asked Saifullah, a police officer who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. "Everybody comes and takes reports, but there is no implementation."
Officer Noor Mohammad, 20, wondered what would happen if police came face to face with a Taliban attack.
"After 10 minutes, we'd be finished with our ammunition, and they'd capture us," he said.
Overall, members of the task force said, Afghans are adapting to the American accountability system. A team from the Afghan Ministry of Defense accompanied the task force on its trip to Kandahar, talking logistics and supply lines with officials in the field.
Rayburn hopes that kind of communication will lead to Afghans taking over accountability of their weapons. How close are they? Rayburn smiles: "They're getting much better."