The Pentagon wasted more than $62 million on procuring, operating, and maintaining inspection equipment intended to prevent illegal cross-border activity known to fuel the Taliban’s pocketbook in Afghanistan, revealed an American watchdog agency.
Soon after the Pentagon transferred the non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment to the control of the Afghan government in 2014 — when the United States ended combat operations in the country — most of the machines became inoperable due to Kabul’s inability to maintain the equipment or troubleshoot problems, found the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
In 2006, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) bought and installed eight pieces of NII equipment to help Afghanistan combat illegal cross-border activity at land points of entry across Afghanistan and the Kabul airport, including the trafficking of opium and other illegal goods.
Afghanistan is the world’s top producer of opium and its heroin derivative. The Taliban, the most prominent terrorist group in the country, generates up to 60 percent of its funding from the illicit opium trade.
U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently told Pentagon reporters that Taliban narco-insurgents are behind most of the smuggling of opium through Pakistan and Iran.
“About 40 percent of [the Afghan opium and heroin] does go out through Pakistan, about 30 percent through Iran, about 30 percent through the north,” the commander told reporters.
Nicholson noted that interdiction is vital to deprive the Taliban of the lucrative source of funding the illicit opium business provides.
Nevertheless, the watchdog reports: “We found that only one location, the Kabul airport, had any functional CENTCOM-purchased NII equipment that was being used for its intended purpose. None of the equipment, valued at $9.48 million, at any of the other locations was operational.”
Asked why the equipment is not being used, Afghan government officials reportedly “cited technical and software problems, maintenance issues/broken parts, and a lack of capable operators as reasons for the non-functional equipment.”
Although Afghan officials claimed they were trained on the use of the NII equipment, SIGAR learned from one official that they were unable “to maintain or trouble-shoot even minor problems.”
At three locations (Torkham, Weesh-Chaman, and Shir Khan Bandar), Afghan officials stated that the equipment had been inoperable for two or more years. Our site inspections showed that, outside of Kabul, the equipment became inoperable nearly as soon as [U.S. Border Management Task force] BMTF mentors left the border locations and the equipment was turned over to the Afghan government.
CENTCOM, which is charged with U.S. military activity in the Middle East and Afghanistan, stopped funding maintenance costs when American BMTF troops ceased operations in 2014 and the equipment was formally transferred to the Afghan government.
SIGAR indicated that the equipment is also vital to facilitating the collection of customs duties on goods entering Afghanistan, one of the largest sources of revenues in the country that the inspector general deems essential for Kabul to become self-sufficient and reduce its dependency on the United States and other international donor support.
Improving the Afghan government’s ability to sustain itself with reduced donor support has been a key priority for both the U.S. government and international donors. The collection of customs duties on goods entering Afghanistan is one of the largest revenue sources for the Afghan government, and improving the efficient and effective collection of custom duties is important to the government’s long-term sustainability.
By procuring and installing non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment at Afghan borders and customs depots, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Border Management Task force (BMTF) hoped to improve the Afghan government’s ability to reduce commercial smuggling, and increase the efficiency of the customs process and domestic revenue collection.
The Pentagon spent between $59 million and $62.6 million (including $12 million for initial procurement, $36.5 million for NII operation and training, and 10.8 million to $14.4 million in maintenance costs) to procure, operate, maintain, and train Afghan government officials in the use of the inspection machines.