U.S. fails to track weapons for Afghan army: report

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon cannot track thousands of weapons meant for the Afghan army, raising the danger of assault rifles, grenade launchers and mortars falling into militant hands, a U.S. watchdog said on Thursday.

The weapons at risk accounted for 36 percent of the 242,203 small arms the U.S. government has bought and shipped to Afghanistan since December 2004, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

Defense agencies could not provide serial numbers for about 46,000 weapons, the GAO found, and did not maintain records on the location or disposition of 41,000 other weapons for which serial numbers were recorded.

The Pentagon also lacked records for 135,000 weapons donated to Afghan forces by 21 other countries, the GAO said.

“Accountability lapses occurred throughout the supply chain,” the report concluded. “Given the unstable security conditions in Afghanistan, the risk of loss and theft of these weapons is significant.”

The Defense Department concurred with the report and its recommendations but said controls had improved.

“In Afghanistan now, there (are) processes in place that ensure that the registration of all serial numbers for small arms that are provided to Afghanistan are taken,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.

The findings were similar to a 2007 GAO report on Iraq that said the Pentagon could not account for 190,000 AK-47s and pistols intended for Iraqi security forces -- about half of the small arms earmarked for them in 2004 and 2005.

The report was released as President Barack Obama prepared to expand the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to combat an intensifying insurgency marked by this week’s Taliban attacks in Kabul that killed 26 people.

The Obama administration is expected to raise the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from 37,000 to about 60,000 in coming months until the Afghan army can take over security.

The United States has provided Afghanistan with more than $17 billion in security training and equipment since 2002 and is working to expand the Afghan army from 80,000 troops to at least 134,000.

Weapons for Afghanistan are officially subject to intensive controls to stop them falling into militant hands. Unregistered or unmonitored arms are easier to steal and sell in a country rife with government corruption, GAO said.

All told, the weapons at risk, whether purchased by the United States or donated by other countries, were worth about $223 million, the GAO said. They include AK-47 assault rifles, pistols, machine guns , grenade launchers, shotguns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and others.

Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, editing by Alan Elsner