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Diversion Of US Weapons In Ukraine To Bad Actors Is ‘Unavoidable,’ Watchdog Warns

Congress’ dedicated accountability body for the war in Afghanistan warned against the challenges of monitoring weapons aid to Ukraine after finding that the Pentagon struggled to account for military equipment handed over to the Afghan army in a report released Monday.

Weaknesses “engrained” in American security assistance to Afghanistan, including poor records keeping and lack of accountability, made it easier for smugglers and enemies to get their hands on U.S.-provided weapons, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found in the report. Those same dynamics could be at play in Ukraine, where the U.S. has provided upwards of $30 billion in weapons and equipment but has a limited on-the-ground footprint.

“Given the ongoing conflict and the unprecedented volume of weapons being transferred to Ukraine, the risk that some equipment ends up on the black market or in the wrong hands is likely unavoidable,” SIGAR wrote. “Nonetheless, delayed oversight comes at a cost.”

Crises can cause leaders to prioritize rapid response and shove oversight down the list of priorities, SIGAR noted. While the deluge of Western weapons assistance to Ukraine has helped the country defend against Russia’s larger and more equipped invading force, the speed of weapons aid can increase the risk of diversion.

That happened in Afghanistan, where the Department of Defense’s (DOD) reliance on two separate electronic tracking systems left DOD with conflicting data. Unreliable inventories combined with DOD’s own lax adherence to oversight procedures meant weapons were susceptible to loss.

The Department of Defense has expressed confidence over its ability to track weapons in Ukraine; one senior official said “We have very, very detailed accountability measures to ensure that we are tracking [the weapons],” according to SIGAR.

However, appropriation by illicit actors for sale on the black market, misuse by competing Ukrainian factions and capture by Russia or it’s non-state fighters for hire — all scenarios that have parallels in 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan — are real possibilities, SIGAR warned.

After the Afghanistan government’s collapse in August 2021, Taliban forces acquired billions in U.S. weapons and related equipment originally meant for the Afghan military.

In Ukraine, DOD struggled to account for some elements of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, such as night vision goggles, originating even before the Russian invasion, the DOD Inspector General found in 2020. DOD’s database of equipment did not match the reality on the ground because Ukraine did not always communicate loss or theft in a timely manner, according to the watchdog.

“We’re not on the ground with them. And they’re not telling us, you know, every round of ammunition that they’re firing and at who, and at when,” a senior defense official said in April 2022, two months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

Although the U.S. has launched new accountability efforts since, in-country monitors remain restricted to regions distant from the front lines, and reporting suggests that the U.S. depends primarily on the Ukrainian military to report the status of U.S.-donated military equipment.

DOD did not respond to SIGAR’s request for feedback.

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