After nearly a decade of mismanagement, theft and fraud, the U.S. military still hasn’t found a way to staunch the flow of what is likely hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars in lost fuel in Afghanistan, some of which is sold on the black market and winds up in Taliban hands, a TPM investigation has found.
With political unrest in the Middle East sending oil over $100 per barrel and Congress more intent than ever at cutting government waste, fraud and abuse in tough budgetary times, the Defense Department is under intense pressure to find a way to monitor and track the flow of fuel in and out of its bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The extensive corruption associated with disappearing fuel in Afghanistan provides another illustration of the problems associated with the heavy use of private contractors on the battlefield. Earlier this week, the non-partisan Commission for Wartime Contracting reported that the U.S. government has spent $117 billion on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, and tens of billions of those dollars have been wasted.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform panel, who has vowed to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he recently traveled to Afghanistan and is aware of the problem.
“It’s not like you have a credit card and can track these things like you do at the local pump,” Issa said, estimating that stolen fuel in both Afghanistan and Iraq could well amount to a billion-dollar loss for the DoD.
It’s an area rife with corruption and has been for the last several years, Issa said, and his committee intends to push the DoD to find a better tracking system — and quickly.
The Army Petroleum Center in late November publicly asked defense contractors to come up with a technological solution to the problem of tracking the outflow of fuel held in 10,000- to 210,000-gallon collapsible fabric bladders located on army bases in Afghanistan.
“The automatic gauging equipment shall be capable of measuring volume in collapsible fabric tanks and downloading real-time volume measurements” in weather conditions in Afghanistan, and of transmitting the measurements to a central receiver via wired technology, according to the public notice placed on wwwfedbizopps.gov.
The announcement, however, is only what is known as a request for information, the DoD’s first step in researching the matter, and does not involve an actual contract to make and supply the tracking systems. Developing flow meters for these fuel bladders, which would measure the volume of liquid passing through them, could be months or even years in the making.
When TPM asked Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), a longtime member of the defense spending panel, about the fuel losses on Wednesday, Moran was well-versed on the topic, noting that he and other members of the committee had received private briefings by defense officials about the thorny security, logistics and corruption issues posed by the fuel theft.
Over the years, the transport of the fuel into the country at times has involved agreements to siphon a portion to outside parties in order to guarantee safe passage of the trucks, Moran said, and some of that fuel has ended up in enemy hands.
The fuel losses have been continuing for years without the military imposing flow meters on the fuel bladders or tracking mechanisms on the contractors’ trucks even though much of the technology to do so is available, Moran confirmed.
“Everyone in the military acknowledges we could have done more, we could have done better [to stem waste, fraud and abuse],” he said. “This is a case of woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Just minutes after making the comments, Moran questioned Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, about the fuel theft and fraud during a military construction spending subcommittee hearing in the House.
“The fuel that we’re bringing in — so much of it is missing, goes on the black market or winds up in the hands of the Taliban,” Moran said.
Mattis readily acknowledged the severity of the problem. Central Command is “significantly involved in figuring out how much fuel we’re losing,” he said.
Task Force Spotlight and Task Force 2010, initiatives set up last year to better regulate and oversee private-contractor operations, are investigating the fuel losses as part of their larger mission of getting a handle on the dangers private contractors have posed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They are looking at each contract and trying to make sure we’re not contracting with a bunch of crooks,” Mattis told the House subcommittee Wednesday.
Fuel theft once the trucks and tankers have reached the bases is not nearly as big of a problem as what happens to the trucks before they enter the base and along the distribution lines when the trucks transport the fuel to forward operating bases or other locations, Mattis said
To prevent this, the Army has refined its delivery terms to include payment only upon 100 percent delivery, according to Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill.