Washington: The US$174 million Pentagon drone programme meant to give Afghan forces an upper hand against Taliban has come under fire by a watchdog report which said that it has shown few gains.
The report from the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction cited delays and a lack of oversight or clear metrics for success for the programme known as ScanEagle. The report found several issues plaguing the programme, including inadequate training for Afghan forces, who displayed an “inability to account for ScanEagle equipment” and failed to exploit the intelligence gathered by the drones for military missions.
“As a result of these delays and challenges,” the Defence Department “lacks information necessary to track, understand and improve the return on its US$174 million investment in the programme, and is poorly positioned to transfer responsibilities” to the Afghan National Army, the report said.
In written responses to the report, the American-led mission in Afghanistan defended the programme, noting that the Afghan army now requires minimal assistance from military advisers, that it rigorously vets troops working on the drones and that the equipment is used daily for operations even though “it may not be to Western standards.”
As American forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, the drone programme was a Pentagon attempt to mitigate a shortcoming of Afghan troops: an inability to surveil the battlefield from the sky.
But the nearly 50-page report, awash in acronyms and tables, paints a familiar picture of the American war effort. The ScanEagle programme is one of hundreds of Pentagon-funded misadventures aimed at molding Afghan security forces into a Western fighting force.
According to the report, the Afghan National Army “will require continued US government financial and technical support to sustain the ScanEagle programme.” The contracts are overseen by the Naval Air Systems Command and Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary that fields the aircraft.
The ScanEagle is a small drone with a 10-foot wingspan, less capable than the larger, higher-flying armed drones such as the Reaper.
The Afghan military was unable to account for 27 of the 87 soldiers certified to operate the ScanEagle drones, according to the report. And of the 60 soldiers assigned to operate the ScanEagles at sites around the country, an average of 17 were absent “because of sickness, annual leave or unknown reasons,” the report said.
Afghan law enforcement agencies also “seized a stolen ScanEagle vehicle that a criminal intended to sell to a suspected terrorist organization for $400,000,” the report said.
American officials expressed concerns that the ScanEagle could be weaponised, a common tactic for insurgent groups that outfit small, unarmed drones with homemade devices to drop grenades or other munitions.
The report comes shortly after the Pentagon announced that it had reduced its forces in Afghanistan to roughly 8,600 troops and that the US military had left five bases, transferring them to Afghan forces, all as part of the peace agreement with the Taliban.