WASHINGTON — By the end of 2016, Afghanistan's air force is due to have 86 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. Most of them will have been purchased by the United States from Rosoboronexport, the same state weapons exporter that continues to arm the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
Congress is not pleased — but has struggled to do anything about it.
The Pentagon says there is no better, cheaper helicopter than the Mi-17 to operate in Afghanistan's desert expanses and high altitudes, and that it is the aircraft the Afghans know best.
For its latest order of 30 helicopters, the Defense Department sidestepped a congressional ban imposed last year on using fiscal 2013 funds to buy anything from Rosoboronexport. Instead, the military found the money in its 2012 Afghanistan budget to finance the nearly $600 million contract.
Adding insult to perceived injury, the Pentagon said it would have gone ahead with the contract even if it had to use 2013 funds, under a waiver provision in the ban that allows it to take action it determines to be in U.S. national security interests.
"Gosh sakes, we won the vote 407 to 5," fumed Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who spearheaded the prohibition in the House. "These guys are only focused on Afghanistan, and couldn't care less what is happening in Syria." Last month, the House Appropriations Committee added a similar amendment to the 2014 defense funding bill.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., who organized last year's unanimous Senate vote, chastised the administration for "arrogant circumvention" of bipartisan congressional will and said, "American taxpayers should not be indirectly subsidizing the murder of Syrian civilians."
The dispute over the helicopters is only the latest political controversy involving Rosoboronexport. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration accused the company of transferring sensitive technology and weapons to Iran and eventually imposed sanctions against any U.S. purchases from the exporter.
The Obama administration lifted the sanctions in 2010 as part of its policy "reset" toward Russia, after Moscow suspended delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran — the same advanced antiaircraft system that Rosoboronexport has contracted to provide Assad — and agreed to support U.N. sanctions against Iran.
During the sanctions period, the Pentagon bought an initial tranche of Mi-17s for Afghanistan from U.S. contractors who purchased them directly from Russian manufacturers.
As the United States prepared to tender the recent contract, Russia's Defense Ministry decreed that all items destined for "military use" could be sold only through Rosoboronexport. U.S. contractors cried foul and sought congressional support when the Pentagon agreed to submit to the new rule.
Pentagon officials said the Mi-17s are the most sensible solution for Afghanistan.
"They've been using it for years," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in House testimony in April. "Easy maintenance, unsophisticated. We can get it pretty quickly. That's the one they want."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that the purchase was a crucial component of U.S. withdrawal plans from Afghanistan. "We are trying . . . to provide them as much capability as possible so that they can in fact take responsibility for security" when U.S. combat forces leave at the end of 2014, he said.
But an audit issued two weeks ago by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction called the recent 30-helicopter contract "imprudent." It said Afghanistan's rudimentary air force was incapable of operating and maintaining the aircraft without significant U.S. military support and called for the contract to be suspended pending further planning.
Lawmakers have also objected to Russian maintenance training and spare-parts programs for the helicopters in Afghanistan, an arrangement worked out by NATO as part of its efforts to foster closer Russian cooperation with the alliance.
Dempsey said that disagreement with Russia over Syria did not mean there could not be collaboration elsewhere. "It's easy to point out the friction points among nations, whether it's Russia or China," he said, "but there's also plenty of places where we have common interests, and Afghanistan just happens to be one of those with Russia."
Moran questioned what he called "at best, a mixed signal we're sending to the Russians. We really don't want them selling arms to Syria, but we're going to keep buying arms from them anyway," he said. "We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. . . . It doesn't seem to be asking too much to have a coordinated policy here."