In 2006, the U.S. military purchased $12.1 million worth of inspection equipment for five border posts in Afghanistan in an effort to crack down on illicit drug smuggling and boost customs duty revenues to the Afghan government.
After operation, training and maintenance costs, the total investment for the equipment to date is estimated at up to $62.6 million.
However, according to a new report, the equipment is now sitting "inoperable and unused" at four of the five locations. At three of them, officials told inspectors that the equipment had not been operational for at least two years.
The report was issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR – a military agency tasked by Congress to audit U.S. spending in Afghanistan.
Drug smuggling is a rampant problem in Afghanistan and a primary source of funding for the Taliban, as NPR's Tom Bowman has reported. The U.S. is preparing to send hundreds more military advisors to the country next year and has recently bombed opium processing plants.
The amount of narcotics produced in Afghanistan continues to rise – and as SIGAR reported in October, "the estimated value of opiates produced in Afghanistan nearly doubled from $1.56 billion in 2015 to $3.02 billion in 2016." It said the U.S. has sunk at least $8.6 billion into counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) purchased the eight pieces of inspection equipment in 2006 that were capable of scanning vehicles and cargo containers for narcotics, explosives and contraband. According to the watchdog's report, the Pentagon-funded Border Management Task Force (BMTF) trained and mentored Afghan officials about how to use the equipment, spending about $36.5 million and holding more than 7,000 training sessions.
SIGAR also estimates that CENTCOM paid the equipment manufacturer "between $10.8 million and $14.4 million" to maintain the scanners from 2007-2014.
The equipment was formally handed over to the Afghan government in 2014, when BMTF stopped working in Afghanistan. And in most cases, it appears that the equipment quickly fell into disuse and disrepair.
In fact, Kabul Airport is the only location where investigators found equipment still functioning as it was intended.
"We interviewed Afghan government officials at each location to determine why the equipment was not being used," the report states. "Afghan officials we spoke with cited technical and software problems, maintenance issues/broken parts, and a lack of capable operators as reasons for the non-functioning equipment."
And while most officials said they had received training, "at one location an official noted that they had not been trained to maintain or troubleshoot even minor problems."
The report concludes that because the U.S. has no presence on Afghanistan's borders, it's up to the Afghan government to use the equipment properly to curb smuggling and boost revenues.
"Unfortunately, at this point, it appears that the Afghan government has been unable or unwilling to sustain that investment," SIGAR stated. CENTCOM said in an attached letter that it "concurs with that assessment."
SIGAR recently made headlines in its latest quarterly report – largely to do with information that had been withheld by the U.S. military. Here's more:
"Very basic information such as the number of Afghan troops that have died, the exact size of the force, how many people are joining, and the readiness of their equipment has previously been made available in quarterly reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — a military agency set up by Congress that audits U.S. spending in Afghanistan.
"The watchdog's report released Tuesday, however, explained that the U.S. military command in Afghanistan withheld these crucial measures of the war's progress this time around.
"A U.S. military spokesman, Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, told NPR that the information was classified at the request of the Afghan government for operational security reasons."