WASHINGTON —The Pentagon will be called to account on Capitol Hill this week for its pricey plan to outfit Afghan soldiers in uniforms with a private-label forest camouflage scheme of dubious value in the desert country.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., fired off a letter Friday to the Pentagon about the report from the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction that found the military may have squandered $28 million by purchasing uniforms for the Afghan army without testing their effectiveness. The uniforms use a proprietary forest pattern while woodlands cover just 2% of the country’s terrain.
Meanwhile, a panel of the House Armed Services committee will meet on Tuesday to hear from John Sopko, the inspector general, who blasted U.S. commanders in June for buying the uniforms that also featured fancier frills like zippers instead of buttons.
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McCaskill, the ranking Democrat the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, called on the Pentagon to explain why it issued the contract without competitive bidding.
“This is a contracting decision that makes you smack your head in frustration,” McCaskill said in a statement. “It’s a prime example of wasting hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of how this happened.”
The Pentagon has not refuted the substance of Sopko’s report. In a written response,military officials acknowledged they needed to study if a cheaper, more effective uniform exists.
All told, the Pentagon has spent $93 million since 2007 to buy 1.3 million uniforms for Afghan soldiers. Simply by using a camouflage pattern owned but not currently used by the U.S. military could have saved taxpayers $71 million, according to Sopko’s report.
McCaskill’s letter seeks answers in early August from the Pentagon on its progress toward a cost-benefit analysis of alternative uniforms, whether contracting law was followed and assurances that future purchases will have proper oversight.
The uniform flap has prompted bi-partisan outrage. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, has pointed to the portion of the report that showed Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak chose the camouflage pattern because “he liked what he saw” of it during an internet search with U.S. officials.
Grassley, senior member of the Budget and Finance committees, blasted the decision as “embarrassing and an affront to U.S. taxpayers.”
Afghan soldiers do fight insurgents from the Taliban and other terrorist groups in terrain where forest camouflage would be appropriate. But no testing was done on the forest pattern’s suitability, according to the report. It goes on to point out that the U.S. military could have spent as little as $156,400 to determine a camouflage pattern’s effectiveness in its own lab.
Sopko scoffed at the selection process, facetiously asking if American commanders would have agreed to buy “pink or chartreuse” uniforms if the defense minister had liked them.
Since the war began in Afghanistan, Congress has appropriated $66 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces. There’s no end in sight as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis considers bolstering by several thousand the current U.S. force of about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.