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When Made-in-the-USA isn’t Afghan-Good-Enough
In a recent New York Times article, Andrew Kramer details one of the many critical tactical limitations of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) - a lack of Night-Vision Devices (NVDs). In my year in Kandahar, one of the singularly consistent issues facing the ANDSF was the dearth of NVDs. This seemingly obvious enabler was conspicuously absent from ANDSF equipment, begging the question: When one can literally buy a decent pair of NVDs at Walmart for $200 (or less from China) and the USG is pumping $4+ billion in appropriated dollars annually towards the Afghan Security Forces Fund, why is it that a $200 piece of equipment has created a substantial tactical disadvantage? The answer is fairly straight forward. A nexus of policy guidance meant to protect the defense industry, reduce weapons proliferation and improve financial accountability has unwittingly hamstrung ANDSF materiel procurement.
First, a quick primer on foreign military sales as it applies to Afghanistan: The Afghan government (mostly) does not pay to train and equip its own military – we do, hence the outsized annual appropriation. In order to do so, military officers in Kabul make assessments regarding the needs of the ANDSF and request procurement of defense equipment and materiel that is then contracted or requisitioned by the relevant service component. So, ultimately there exists a contract between the US government and a defense contractor paid for by the US tax payer for materiel that then gets shipped back to the Afghan government and distributed to Afghan troops in the field. For this, several laws and policies exist to ensure good stewardship of tax payer dollars – at least in theory. (I’ll pause to mention that policies can be waived and it depends on the policy and the law as to if there is, and who has, the authority to do so).
Starting with federal acquisition policy: Simply, the DoD must preference procurement of US manufactured defense items as per the Buy America Act. This is intended to protect US industry and ensure that US taxpayer dollars aren’t buying equipment made by competing manufacturers in, say, China. Moreover, the DoD also must preference military equipment as well. The reason being, it costs manpower and money to procure through the DoD – not to mention the glacial pace of defense contracting – so if you can buy it at Walmart cheaper and faster then you shouldn’t buy it through the US government. But there’s another caveat; US appropriated dollars are not a check book given to a foreign country to go buying commercial items on Amazon or Alibaba. Instead, they must be executed through DoD channels for the purpose of oversight over tax payer dollars. Remember, Afghanistan’s defense budget is mostly US appropriated dollars and the Afghan Government isn’t willing to spend money on something commercially available that the US Government would pay for instead - regardless of effectivity, cost, timeliness etc. So that $200 pair of Walmart NVDs, just became a $12,000 pair of L3 NVDs with all the full force and weight of the US military behind it. To be fair, this does ensure better capability, interoperability of equipment, and sustainment and sparing all built into an army requisition system.
And there’s another issue as well, according to the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act, the US government must ensure End-Use Monitoring (EUM) over any military equipment exported to a foreign nation. The obvious purpose of EUM is to ensure non-proliferation of military equipment beyond its intended recipient and/or use. Moreover, certain equipment of particular sensitivity is included on an Enhanced End Use Monitoring (EEUM) list, which happens to include NVDs. In order to enforce EUM and EEUM, agreements are signed between the US and the country ensuring proper storage, use, and disposal of military equipment. EUM violations are considered grave infractions and can result in cutting-off any or all foreign military sales to that country. In the case of EEUM, the country agrees to in-person checks and stock inventories by US personnel in country. That means the US military goes and counts each individual set of NVDs in each warehouse where they are stored and used to ensure they do not fall into the hands of the Taliban or are sold on the black market (not uncommon events in Afghanistan).
In 2012, a Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction report was issued to Congress detailing the lack of oversight and loss of several hundred NVDs given to the ANDSF. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the agency responsible for approving all foreign military sales executed with Afghan Security Forces Funds, was thoroughly scolded for not providing enough oversight over the 7,000+ NVD’s already sold to the ANDSF.
While it seems an obvious fix to “just give them NVDs,” the answer is not that simple. In Kandahar, we were the first to receive new NVDs since the SIGAR report. Strict guidance was given for EEUM oversight and management. As units redeploy, and priorities shift, the rigor of EEUM in the future is uncertain but the necessity of NVD equipment, however, is obvious. What will also remain true is that while the Taliban will be able to procure cheap Russian or Chinese made NVDs through various means and markets, the ANDSF will continue to buy Made in the USA.