War’s Strange Bedfellows

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A Russian-built Mi-17 being flown by the Afghan military

The Pentagon is buying helicopters for its Afghan allies from the same Russian-based company that’s also selling weapons to Syria that Damascus is using against its own people.

Rosoboronexport, Moscow’s official arms merchant, sold some $1 billion in weaponry to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s government last year, making it Syria’s biggest arms supplier. It signed an even more interesting deal with the Pentagon last June:

This $375 million U.S. Army contract (click to enlarge) is for 21 Russian Mi-17 helicopters U.S. taxpayers are providing to the Afghan military. Rosoboronexport had been barred from U.S. deals until 2010 after violating economic sanctions against trade with Iran.

Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the deal last Wednesday during an armed services committee hearing. After saying he didn’t want to “blindside” the general, he wondered: “General Dempsey, can you explain why we would buy helicopters for the Afghan military from this arms exporter that’s been sanctioned by the U.S. government for its illicit activities with Iran, and which is the principal means by which Russia is arming Assad’s regime and killing so many Syrians?”

Having been blindsided, Dempsey could only say: “If they’re not sanctioned and enter the competition, it could very well be that they ended up being the lowest bidder.” (Especially when you note per the contract announcement above that “One bid was solicited, with one bid received.”)

Cornyn brought up the issue again on Thursday, when top Army officials appeared before the committee.

“The options are, frankly, in the Central Command’s estimation, nonexistent,” Army Secretary John McHugh said. “Rosoboron, under federal law in Russia, is the only one who controls the export of those platforms, so we didn’t have options there, either, as I understand it.”

There are practical reasons for buying Russian choppers, McHugh added. “These are the platforms, apparently, that the Afghans are familiar with,” he said. “Many of the pilots that will be flying them were flying Russian aircraft in their previous professional iterations, and we’re told they’re absolutely essential to maintain the viability of a still-emergent Afghan force.”

General Ray Odierno, the Army’s top officer, said this isn’t new. “We did the same thing in Iraq, frankly,” he said. “When they wanted to buy rotary-wing aircraft, we offered, at the time, UH-60s, another U.S.-made rotary wing aircraft. But…they chose to go with an Mi-17 product.”

Speed is of the essence when trying to outfit a new military. “If they had bought an American aircraft, it would have been much more expensive and it would have taken much longer because of the training time of the pilots necessary,” Odierno said. “So I’m not saying it’s an excuse — I’m just saying that’s the rationale for the decisions that were made at the time.”

On Monday, Cornyn and several other senators fired off a bipartisan letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, calling for an end to the U.S. government’s relationship with Rosoboronexport.

So keep your eye on the ball:

1. U.S. helicopters cost too much.

2. The nations we are dying to liberate want cheaper Russian choppers.

3. The U.S. taxpayer is paying for at least some of them.

4. The Pentagon is buying them from the state arms merchant of the U.S.’s Cold War foe.

5. The U.S. once barred this merchant from U.S. deals because of its trade with Iran.

6. The merchant continues to keep its weapons pipeline to Syria flowing.

“It makes absolutely no sense for the U.S. to continue doing business with companies that are so clearly enabling atrocities,” says Sadia Hameed, who runs Human Rights First’s Crimes Against Humanity Program. “It’s hard for the U.S. to have credibility in pushing for a cease fire in Syria when it’s buying arms from the same company supplying those carrying out the ongoing atrocities there.”