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Inspector General: $28M Afghan Uniform Gaffe Sign of Deeper Systemic Problem

Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul on Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

WASHINGTON – Recent revelations about the Pentagon apparently squandering about $30 million on useless uniforms for the Afghan National Army stand as just one example of a broken procurement system that encourages wasteful spending and potentially corruption, a federal inspector said Tuesday.

John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, has opened a criminal investigation into $93 million in Pentagon purchases for Afghan uniforms dating back to 2007. The Pentagon procured more than a million uniforms, but about $28 million worth of the equipment features forest camo that is nearly useless in a country that is about 98 percent desert. According to an OIG report, the army already had access to U.S.-government owned uniforms featuring a “free camouflage” design.

The uniforms were purchased from Canadian company HyperStealth Biotechnology Corporation, which has designed uniforms for forces in Jordan, Chile and the United Arab Emirates. According to testimony, the corporation was the only contractor considered for the purchase.

Sopko told a House panel on Tuesday that no one is being held accountable for the mistake because those responsible have either retired or have moved into other roles. He noted that he’s not suggesting that decision makers in Afghanistan are “stupid or venal,” but they are subject to a broken procurement system.

He explained that through five and half years on the job, he has dealt with eight to 10 leaders for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, the body responsible for the purchase. In some units, turnover is even faster, meaning there is no accountability for the screw-ups because those responsible are difficult to pinpoint. He also explained that numerous contract officers have told him that they are rewarded annually for how much money is put on contract, not whether the contracts are valuable.

“It’s either venality or stupidity or it’s a system” that incentivizes spending money on contracts, Sopko said during a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said that the issue with the Afghan uniforms not only exposes waste but also a cavalier attitude toward procurement.

Sopko suggested the committee send a letter to the Department of Defense, the United States Agency for International Development and other agencies to ask how many people have lost jobs over the issue.

“We identify these problems, and no one is held accountable,” Sopko said.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) asked Michael Roark, assistant inspector general for contract management and payments at DOD, if anyone has suffered any consequences for the purchase.

“In this instance, I’m not aware of anyone (being held accountable),” Roark said.

Moulton continued that Congress should not be responsible for micromanaging or supervising such matters.

“The Armed Services Committee should not have to pass a specific provision in our law to detail the specific supervision of the purchasing of uniforms for the Afghan National Army,” he said. “At a certain level, that’s absurd. We ought to have an environment where these deficiencies, these mistakes are caught, where proper supervision exists from the beginning so that this gross waste of taxpayer dollars never occurs.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asked Sopko if the committee should invite testimony from any other individuals to help find out who is responsible for the gaffe. Sopko cautioned against holding any public discourse with individuals until the criminal investigation has been resolved. He also explained that there is no timeline on the investigation because his office lacks subpoena power, and therefore it could take longer.

Gaetz suggested Sopko tell the committee the individuals he needs to speak with because Congress has the authority to subpoena. Sopko declined to offer names out loud, but said he would be happy to discuss the matter in private with committee leadership.