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Fashion Faux Pas: US Wasted Millions on Afghan Army Uniforms

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Fashion Faux Pas: US Wasted Millions on Afghan Army Uniforms

Why choose a forest uniform for a mostly dry and beige country?

Fashion Faux Pas: US Wasted Millions on Afghan Army Uniforms

On the right, the older Woodland Battle Dress Uniform pattern and the left, the Spec4ce Forest Uniform.

Credit: NATO photo by Kay M. Nissen

The U.S. Department of Defense may have wasted up to $28 million on forest uniforms for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces based on the tastes of the then-Afghan defense minister, according to a review of the uniform procurement program conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

SIGAR — headed by John Sopko — is tasked with auditing U.S. spending on the Afghanistan mission.

Sopko told the New York Times, “They picked the pattern based on a fashion preference, not by experts, but by the minister of defense… That was a dumb decision.”

According to the report, in the early years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan the local forces were equipped with a “hodgepodge” of donated uniforms. By 2007, some standardization had been achieved with the procurement of uniforms which were “a nearly identical variant of the U.S. Army’s Woodland Battle Dress Uniform (BDU).”

This, however, was problematic. The pattern’s “prevalence in the region and non-unique nature… allowed enemy forces to copy or obtain excess quantities of the uniform,” the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), the organization tasked with oversight of efforts to equip and train the ANA and ANP, noted in 2007 documents setting out the requirements for a new uniform.  “As a result, Enemy forces can easily infiltrate into or around ANA forces.”

So the search for a new pattern began as all such searches do in the modern age: with a web search. Defense department officials, in emails reviewed by SIGAR, said they “ran across [HyperStealth’s] web site and the Minister [then Minister of Defense Wardak] liked what he saw. He [the Minister] liked the woodland, urban, and temperate patterns.”

HyperStealth, a Canadian camouflage company, was the proprietary owner of the pattern that was finally selected. SIGAR says that the proprietary-patterned uniforms procured for the ANA were up to 43 percent more expensive than similar non-proprietary patterned uniforms used by the ANP. Between November 2008 and January 2017, the Pentagon spent more than $93 million on 1.3 million uniforms and 88,000 extra pairs of pants for the Afghan army.

The goal of the new design, as set in specifications approved by the Americans and the Afghan government, “was to provide a unique ANA uniform that used a pattern that would be difficult to duplicate.”

As noted in the report, forests cover only 2.1 percent of Afghanistan — making a forest-style sartorial choice odd and the fact that neither the Pentagon nor Kabul could provide SIGAR documentation justifying the choice mystifying. The overriding priority — the search for a unique uniform pattern — may have obscured common sense and due diligence. 

According to SIGAR’s analysis, using a proprietary camouflage pattern rather than a non-proprietary pattern, one of a dozen options already owned by the Pentagon, cost U.S. taxpayers much as $28.23 million extra since 2008.

And as the train, advise and equip mission continues, SIGAR says changing the pattern now to a non-proprietary pattern, could save as much as $72.21 million over the next decade.

The Defense Department’s response letter — attributed to Jedidiah Royal, acting deputy assistant secretary for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia — largely concurred with SIGAR’s recommendations. The Pentagon said it would conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether there is a “more effective alternative” to the current uniforms. The letter also acknowledged the fact that SIGAR was unable to determine the number of ANA uniforms purchased using direct assistance. “This lack of accountability is troubling,” the Pentagon said.