Andrew C. Jarocki
Uncle Sam has quite the hole in his pocket.
As the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan continues, critics understandably worry about who is left behind. However, perhaps as frustrating is the emerging picture of what is being left behind.
It’s estimated that the Taliban has now captured more than 700 vehicles from the Afghan security forces, including M1152 Humvees and Oshkosh mine-resistant ATVs.
How did a vehicle made in Wisconsin and paid for with American taxpayer dollars end up in hands of an enemy force harassing US troops in Kabul?
Part of the explanation is the absolute collapse of Afghan security forces, surrendering their American-provided arms and equipment to the advancing Taliban in the process. This comes after $88.6 billion of American funding over two decades to give the government in Kabul “the right tools for the job.”
In other cases, equipment was simply abandoned by American forces themselves. US troops left millions of items ranging from the most tactical (ammunition and vehicles) to the most mundane (energy drinks and guitars) as they withdrew from bases under the cover of darkness this summer.
Whatever is unique about the situation in Afghanistan, the carelessness with American-funded equipment is not.
A similar story played out in Iraq. At one point in 2007, a Government Accountability Office report found that the Pentagon couldn’t account for at least “190,000 weapons reported as issued to Iraqi forces” as Washington tried to stand up a new army in Iraq.
This same Iraqi force would literally drop their weapons and flee just a few years later when ISIS arrived. Soon after, Amnesty International unsurprisingly announced ISIS was wielding man-portable air defense systems and anti-tank missiles that originally had been provided to Iraq by the US.
The campaign in Syria was no exception to this pattern. An audit by the Department of Defense Inspector General revealed that US forces failed to properly account for $715.8 million in material designated for combating ISIS in 2017. American forces “did not properly store or secure” the arms, which “left thousands of weapons and sensitive equipment vulnerable to loss or theft.”
Even before the Middle Eastern quagmires of the 21st century, the US had a track record of leaving a trail of taxpayer-funded equipment behind wherever it went.
Vietnamese peddlers could still make a living selling the plethora of abandoned American items decades after US withdrawal. Unfortunately, America left more behind than just boots and helmets.
The departure of the remaining US forces from Vietnam and the subsequent collapse of the American-supplied South Vietnamese army provided the Viet Cong with hundreds of artillery pieces, planes, tanks, armored personnel carriers, rifles and ammunition made in the USA.
What’s the moral of this story? Among the many lessons Washington should learn from its “Forever Wars” is to be skeptical of arms transfers and propping up nascent militaries as a strategy.
This practice still continues today. Under the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program, “defense articles declared as excess by the Military Departments can be offered to foreign governments or international organizations in support of U. S. national security and foreign policy objectives.”
Put simply, the Pentagon can sell cheaply or regift what it doesn’t need to “approved” countries.
In some instances, it may truly benefit American security to provide allies with equipment or arms. This can avoid demilitarization and storage costs while supporting the modernization of partner forces. However, better discretion about who should be considered for these transfers is clearly and desperately needed.
For example, the US provided dozens of M109A5 howitzers and hundreds of M2 machine guns to Lebanon through EDA transfers in 2016. Tunisia received C130H aircraft and 10,000 handguns the same way in 2019.
As both of these countries deteriorate or face outright collapse, the risk is real that arms made for the US military and paid for by American taxpayers end up once again in hands never intended to have them.
From Vietnam to Iraq, the US has already learned the hard way that political, cultural and strategic realities cannot be overcome with a blank check or simply throwing the latest gadgets at it.
If the Pentagon wishes to defend its budget, it needs to be a better steward of resources that could have been spent on any other domestic or international priority rather than essentially gifting new rides to insurgents on the other side of the planet.
“The opportunity cost of producing weapons is quite high in terms of other consumption and investment opportunities” said Eugene Gholz, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. “Just as Eisenhower noted, when we spend on military equipment that is designed to be destroyed or lost in combat rather than schools or hospitals, we lose potential benefits for our society.”
“In that case,” Gholz added, “we may as well light that money on fire.”
At a broader level, the military’s overseers in Congress must ask tougher questions about how arms transfers and investing in foreign militaries actually helps America’s interests.
The drawdown from Afghanistan is a tough but ultimately necessary decision. But as long as the definition of “leaving” includes “leaving our stuff here,” America has not truly grasped the cost of its wars.
Andrew C. Jarocki is the Editor-in-Chief of the Realist Review.