A move made by the Pentagon has left the Congress seething and clearly displeased at the government for supplying Afghanistan air troops with nearly 30 Mi-17 helicopters bought from Rosoboronexport which happens to be the same Russian firm that exports weapons to the Syrian government run by Bashar al-Assad.
Although not in a position to do anything about the issue, the Congress is clearly not impressed with the Pentagon’s action in this regard, and feels that the latter is more focused on Afghanistan and apparently did not care about the conflicts in Syria at all.
The Senate had in fact imposed a congressional ban in 2012 that prevented the government from using the fiscal funds collected in 2013 for purchases from the Russian company (the ban has also been incorporated into the defense funding bill for next year). The Defense Department, however, went ahead with the purchase (totaling nearly $600 million) by relying on the funds set aside for Afghanistan in 2012.
The military in retaliation to the Congress’s voice of concern, claimed that the Mi-17 helicopters are the best and cheapest option for the high altitudes areas and vast deserts situated across Afghanistan. It also claims that the Afghan troops know the aircraft well enough to maneuver it better than other standard aircrafts. According to the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “They’ve been using it for years. Easy maintenance, unsophisticated. We can get it pretty quickly. That’s the one they want.”
Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey also claimed that they were equipping the Afghan troops with the helicopters to provide them the strength and capability to maintain their security when the US troops pull out of the nation by the end of 2014.
An audit issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction however, has squashed the previous claim made by the Defense Secretary by stating that the Afghan troops had little experience to operating, handling and maintaining these aircrafts, and would need to rely on the US military for the same purpose. The Special Inspector General has also asked the government to suspend the contract with Rosoboronexport until further plans are made.
Another factor that is irking the Congress is that in spite of the Congressional ban on the use of 2013 funds for the purpose, the Pentagon has revealed that going forward, it would use the same funds if necessary to maintain the contract. It claims that a waiver position in the specific ban allows the government to use the funds in the best interests of the country’s national security.
The Congress however, is strongly against the idea, citing that it would not be considered appropriate (or humanely) if the taxes paid by American citizens were utilized for the butchering of several innocent civilians in Syria.
This is not the first time that the Russian weapons exporter has come under the political scanner. Back in 2006, the then president of the USA, Georfe W. Bush raised accusations that pointed out Rosoboronexport’s participation in the transfer of sensitive weapons and technology to Iran. Bush ultimately imposed necessary sanctions against any kind of purchases made by the country from the firm.
President Barack Obama lifted this sanction in 2010 in order to come to a mutual agreement with Russia which in turn agreed to stop supplying Iran with S-300 missiles (the same missiles it is not exporting to Assad in Syria) – and start supporting UN sanctions against the nation.
It was during this period that the Pentagon bought the first batch of Mi-17 aircrafts for the troops in Afghanistan. The Pentagon bought these aircrafts from U.S. contractors who had in turn purchased them from Russian exporters.
However, the new rule set by the Russian Defense Ministry revealed that any and every item bought from the country for military purposes would need to be bought directly (and only) from Rosoboron export. And with the Pentagon deciding to bow in favor of the rule in order to maintain cordial ties with Russia, contractors back in the U.S. were left seething with anger and disappointment of having been left out. Their only course of action then was to join hands with the Congress to support their cause to suspend the contract with Rosoboronexport in favor of thousands of innocent lives lost in Syria every day.