May 29, 2010

Afghans refuse to destroy old, dangerous ammo

By William H. McMichael - Staff writer
Posted : Friday May 28, 2010
Afghanistan’s defense ministry is refusing to destroy more than 6,300 metric tons of old ammunition that is taking up valuable, climate-controlled bunker space needed for new U.S.-funded Afghan security force ordnance, Army Col. Ronald Green said Friday.
Green, the U.S. officer who has worked on the destruction effort over the past 12 months, said he also worries that the Afghan-guarded ammunition — as well as a stockpile of 1.3 million pounds of degraded commercial-grade ammonite in Herat — could be used to fashion roadside bombs if it fell into the wrong hands. And the old ordnance also poses a threat simply resting in place, he said.
“Once propellant becomes old and unstable, it can just cook off by itself,” said Green, who is completing a 12-month tour as director of logistics for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.
The continued storage of the ammo places Afghan military and civilians as well as coalition forces at risk, Green told reporters during a conference call from Camp Eggers in Kabul.
The Afghan defense ministry also remains out of compliance with a 2006 compact signed in London in which Afghanistan agreed to destroy “all unsafe, unserviceable and surplus” ammunition by the end of 2010 — a task that Green said is physically impossible given the time remaining in the year.
Green said the Afghans simply want to hold onto the ammo, much of it old Soviet stock that includes 35-year-old rocket-propelled grenades and ordnance for obsolete weapons such as the World War II-era T-34 tank.
This is despite repeated entreaties — 75 engagements over the past three years — by senior U.S. military and civilian officials to their Afghan counterparts, including Abdul Rahim Wardak, who heads the defense ministry, and members of the Afghan parliament.
“I just cannot get my head wrapped around this cultural affinity for hoarding,” Green said. “The [defense ministry] believes that this ammunition is good — if it looks good, it is good.
“This is a national treasure in their eyes.”
In an effort to influence the legislators, Green said several members of parliament were recently taken to bunkers in two locations, where they were shown stacks of both old and new ammunition.
During an inventory, the old ordnance had been stacked up “very nicely,” Green said. “The parliamentarians said, ‘This looks very nice.’ ”
Green said he has no evidence that any of the ammunition, stored in bunkers scattered around country, has fallen into enemy hands. But that is a major concern, he added.
“I don’t know if there’s pilferage,” he said. “It’s a situation I would rather not be in.”
Much of the ordnance, he said, is 14.5mm or larger — “prime candidates” for the roadside bombs that have killed 275 U.S. troops in 2009 and 114 so far this year, according to
Green said the U.S. recently has spent more than $1.2 billion on new NATO-compatible ammunition for the Afghan forces, but has no good place to store it.
“Because the old ammo is in bunkers, we’re forced to store the new ammo in substandard storage areas — meaning the climate is not controlled,” he said.
As a result, he said, “the brand-new ammo that we’re buying for them is now degrading faster than it should.”
New bunkers are being built, Green said — $50 million in U.S. funding has been allocated to the task — but it takes 15 to 18 months to build each one.
In addition, record-keeping — critical to tracking the stability and usability of ordnance — is nonexistent, he said.
The U.S., he said, can’t simply act unilaterally to reduce the degraded inventory. “We cannot destroy one ounce of ammo,” he said. “It is all the [defense ministry].”
Two organizations, the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement and the British nongovernmental war debris disposal organization Halo Trust, have identified at least 25 percent of the Afghan stocks that they say should be destroyed. The groups also have the funding to do so, Green said.
Some of the stocks have been destroyed, he said, but it’s a “very, very small amount.” At the current rate, he said, “we’re looking at around 40 years of destruction time.” If the Afghans would agree to destroy the ammunition according to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact ammunition standards for ordnance service life, the destruction of all 6,325 metric tons could be accomplished in 19 months. “And it wouldn’t cost them a cent,” Green said.
“I have spent many, many an hour trying to get this done,” he said. “And the problem is, there’s people that are in danger.”
Much of his disappointment, he said, lies in his desire to help make the Afghan army more professional.
Professional armies, he said, store ammunition — an army’s “lifeblood,” he called it — using a proper methodology and criteria.
“I’m leaving here frustrated that I haven’t been able to accomplish this,” Green said. “We’ve invested large amounts of energy, time, effort, money and resources, and we just need to make it right.”

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