Tracking Canada’s automatic weapons gift to Afghanistan

By testimony of the Department of National Defence (DND), Canada has taken significant care in the transfer of 2,500 C7 automatic rifles from the Canadian Forces to the Afghan National Army. At the same time, a new US study shows that the security system into which those rifles have now gone is seriously deficient in its ability to ensure that guns intended for the Afghan Army will not join the millions of other weapons that get diverted to illicit users and uses.

The Canadian weapons were provided a year ago under a program of the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A).[i] The CSTC-A focuses on the training and development of Afghan security forces and one objective has been to switch Afghanistan from the 7.62 calibre AK-47 to 5.56 calibre automatic weapons, the NATO standard.

The US has transferred over 242,000 small arms and light weapons (SALW) under the program to the Afghan forces (army and police) – in addition to machine guns they include grenade launchers, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars, pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Other countries have provided another 135,000 weapons, of which 2,500 are the Canadian C7 automatic rifles or machine guns.

An investigation by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO)[ii] concludes that the program has failed to meet basic inventory control standards in the supply of these weapons – both because the US forces failed to monitor weapons effectively during the transfers, and because there continued to be a serious risk of theft and loss once the Afghan forces took custody of the weapons. Mark Sedra of the Centre for International Governance Innovation has written extensively about small arms circulation in Afghanistan and the importance of developing a reliable procurement process.[iii]

Whatever the merits of delivering still more arms to a country already awash with as many as 10 million small arms,[iv] the transfers raise important questions about the process by which weapons are delivered to Afghan security forces, and about the capacity of Afghan forces to prevent them leaking away to illicit users.

The Canadian process is considered below, but first a brief look at the GAO report.[v] More than a third of the weapons supplied by the US were not effectively accounted for even by the US at the time of the transfer. Of 242,000 weapons transferred, serial numbers were not recorded for 46,000. Another 41,000, for which serial numbers were recorded, were not registered or documented in any way when they were transferred to Afghan forces and there is no way of knowing where they are now (p. 14).

Furthermore, the GAO says, “CSTC-A did not record the serial numbers for the weapons it received from international donors and stored in the central depots in Kabul for eventual distribution to the [Afghan security forces]” – this did not include the Canadian rifles which were transferred directly to Afghan National Army (ANA) units. The CSTC-A “could not verify the delivery and subsequent control of weapons in Afghanistan” (p. 15). Weapons received from international donors at Kabul’s International Airport were, without documentation, loaded into the custody of the ANA “for unescorted transport from the airport to the central depots in Kabul.” As the GAO report puts it, rather mildly given the evidence, the “CSTC-A had limited ability to ensure that weapons were not lost or stolen in transit to the depots.” (p. 16)

Canada, according to DND’s own account in written response to a series of questions,[vi] put in place a much more effective process for managing the initial transfer to the ANA of the 2,500 C7s.

Issues of diversion are not directly addressed in Canadian export control laws, but the Export and Import Permits Act [Section 7.1.(a)] does require that the transfer not compromise “the safety or interests of the [recipient] State.” If the weapons were transferred into a system of obviously lax inventory control, where there would be a high likelihood that many of those weapons would get diverted to illicit users and uses, it could certainly be taken as a violation of export regulations.

In addition, Canada has signed on to the 2001 UN Program of Action on small arms, an international political agreement which calls on armed forces and other bodies authorized to possess small arms to “establish adequate and detailed standards and procedures relating to the management and security of their stocks of these weapons.” Such standards and procedures are to include “appropriate location for stockpiles; physical security measures; control of access to stocks; inventory management and accounting control; staff training; security, accounting and control of SALW held or transported by operational units or authorized personnel; and procedures and sanction in the event of thefts or loss.”[vii]

The Canadian C7s appear not to have gone through the central depot in Kabul where much of the control failed. Indeed, the transfer process itself seems to have largely followed the UN protocol and involved, as DND says, “a number of strict measures, including the marking of weapons, the establishment of a register of weapons, and the appropriate training of Afghan forces.”

The DND spokesperson explains further that

“the transfer of weapons is done on an incremental basis, prior to each kandak (unit) resuming operations after a two-month training period. This allows JTF-Afghanistan[viii] to mentor and train Afghans on the usage and maintenance of the weapon, as well as on storage procedures (weapons and ammunition), control measures (weapons and ammunition), human rights, second and third line maintenance, and developing trainers. All recipients also undergo basic security screening.

“Weapons are maintained under control of JTF-Afghanistan until the Commander is satisfied that the necessary control mechanisms are in place. Once the transfer has occurred, the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) works to ensure that the Afghan National Army (ANA) enforce the standards that were taught to them.

“To facilitate training, mentoring and monitoring, weapons are slowly integrated as they are issued to one kandak (unit) at a time. For each block of donations, the Commander of the OMLT submits a detailed written report to Commander JTF-Afghanistan stating whether or not the recipients meet the stated requirements.”

While independent verification of these processes is not possible, DND’s account indicates a significant measure of care to prevent diversion of these weapons to unauthorized users and to promote responsible use – unlike the process followed by the CSTC-A.

There is a separate concern regarding the capacity of the ANA to continue to maintain control of the weapons once they have been transferred into the custody of Afghan security forces.

The CSTC-A has itself been lax in assessing the “equipment accountability capabilities” of the Afghan Forces (p. 19). Even so, the GAO reports that CSTC-A contractors “have documented significant weaknesses in the capacity of [Afghan forces] to safeguard and account for weapons. As a result, the weapons CSTC-A has provided are at serious risk of theft or loss.” The significance for Canada obviously is that despite its training and mentoring provisions, the risks of diversion remain considerable due to the overall level of accountability within Afghan forces – recognizing that control standards within the Afghan Army are reported to be much better than within the Afghan National Police.

A third issue in any transfer is the need to prevent the diversion of the AK-47s which the new guns replace. The danger of the old AK-47s drifting into the small arms supermarket that flourishes in Afghanistan is particularly real. There have even been reports of warlords linked to the pro-Government Northern Alliance selling some of their current surpluses to the Taliban.[ix]

The 2001 UN small arms Program of Action that Canada signed on to includes a provision that whenever new arms are provided, suppliers have an obligation to ensure that the old arms which become surplus are responsibly disposed of, “preferably through destruction.”[x] In this case the weapons which the C7s replace have not been declared as surplus by the ANA and thus will not be destroyed. Rather, they will stay in the ANA inventory – not a reassuring disposal plan.

DND’s response to a question about the ultimate disposal of any weapons replaced by the C7s implies that Canada also has no serious capacity, or intention, to assess the Afghan forces’ ability to maintain control over the weapons. DND explains that “the AK-47s that the ANA were originally issued are the property of the Government of Afghanistan through their various line Ministries (Defence, Interior, etc…).” Hence, “the AK-47 rifles replaced by Canadian participation in the NATO 5.56 program (the C7 donation) are retained by the ANA and warehoused. The C7 donation is not a ‘one for one’ exchange.”

The failure to either assure the destruction of any weapons replaced by the C7s, or to verify the ANA’s effective inventory control over them, must be taken as a failure to fulfill the full intent of the Program of Action.

Of course, the US failure is much more egregious – tens of thousands of weapons unaccounted for, no confidence that the weapons that actually reached the ANA and ANP are neither diverted nor used for unlawful purposes, and no attempt made to destroy or control the arms replaced by the CSTC-A program of conversion to NATO calibre weapons. The GAO reports that CSTC-A is in the process of introducing improved monitoring, but the GAO also reports that the CSTC-A “noted it did not have sufficient staff or mentors to conduct the monitoring envisioned” (p. 25).

International forces in Afghanistan, and particularly weapons suppliers, should at a minimum make sure that transfers are taken as an occasion to actually implement the practices and procedures for effective small arms and light weapons inventory control prescribed in the UN Program of Action that all of them have adopted. That program includes commitments to assist states seeking to develop the necessary infrastructure and overall capacity for full compliance, and thus Canada should surely commit to assisting Afghanistan, not only in the management of the weapons received from Canada, but in the responsible management and use of all of the weapons held by Afghan security forces.

Whatever the true number and legal status of most of the millions of small arms in Afghanistan, they not only deny peace for now, they threaten to defer it for a long time to come. Any supplier that decides to add still more weapons to that super-saturated small arms environment had better be in a strong and confident position to ensure that none of those arms will be diverted to exacerbate the extraordinary challenge that the small arms already there present to a country not short on challenges.

eregehr@ploughshares.ca

Notes

[i] The CSTC-A works with the Government of Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force to train and develop Afghan security forces in order to “achieve security and stability in Afghanistan.” http://www.cstc-a.com/Mission.html.

[ii] Afghanistan Security: Lack of Systematic Tracking Raises Significant Accountability Concerns about Weapons Provided to Afghan National Security Forces. GAO (GAO-09-267), January 2009. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09267.pdf.

[iii] Sedra, Mark. 2008. “Small arms and security sector reform.” Michael Bhatia and Mark Sedra, Afghanistan, Arms and Conflict: Armed groups, disarmament and security in post-ar society. Routledge, pp. 158-180.

[iv] The call for arms control: voices from Afghanistan. Oxfam Briefing Note, January 2006. Available at Oxfam, http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what_we_do/issues/conflict_disasters/downloads/bn_afghanistan.pdf,

or through the Council of Foreign Relations,

http://www.cfr.org/project/1294/council_special_report_on_small_arms_and_light_weapons.html

[v] Afghanistan Security: Lack of Systematic Tracking Raises Significant Accountability Concerns about Weapons Provided to Afghan National Security Forces. GAO (GAO-09-267), January 2009. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09267.pdf.

[vi] See Regehr, Ernie. 2009. Canada’s Automatic Weapons Gift to Afghanistan: Were Canadian Military Export Regulations Followed? Ploughshares Briefing 09-2, February. http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/Briefings/brf092.pdf.

[vii] “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, 2001, UN Document A/CONF.192/15, Section II, Para 18

(http://disarmament.un.org/cab/poa.html).

[viii] The Canadian Joint Task Force Afghanistan.

[ix] Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif , “The Northern Alliance may supply arms to Taliban, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, March 12, 2006 (http://www.rawa.org/arm-taliban.htm).

[x] “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, 2001, UN Document A/CONF.192/15, Section II, Para 18

(http://disarmament.un.org/cab/poa.html).

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