Washington (AFP) – The Pentagon has called off plans to buy more Russian-made helicopters for Afghan forces in the face of strong opposition from lawmakers, officials said Thursday.
The Defense Department had requested funds to purchase an additional 15 helicopters from Rosoboronexport but members of Congress and human rights groups had objected, citing the Russian arms firm’s weapons sales to the Syrian regime.
The Pentagon “has re-evaluated requirements in consultation with Congress,” spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said in an email.
“We currently do not have plans to purchase additional Mi-17s from Rosoboronexport,” she said.
Defense officials and military commanders had argued the helicopters were vital to help bolster Afghanistan’s security forces as NATO’s US-led contingent prepares to withdraw by the end of next year.
The Pentagon, however, will honor its previous commitments, officials said. The department has already bought 63 Mi-17s for Afghanistan since 2011.
The move was welcomed by lawmakers and rights advocates, who accused President Barack Obama’s administration of contradicting its own policy on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s past time the American military ended its relationship with Assad’s arms dealer,” said Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia. “This is one of the few issues that has received overwhelming bipartisan support in this Congress. We need to buy our helicopters elsewhere.”
Sonni Efron of Human Rights First said the decision “is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”
“It will save American taxpayers money while showing that the United States will not keep doing business as usual with firms that are profiting from enabling gross human rights violations,” he said.
For more than a year, Republican Senator John Cornyn led a drive in Congress to halt the helicopter deals.
In a contract with the Russian firm for 2013, the US government bought 30 helicopters worth $572 million. The proposed purchase for fiscal year 2014 that was cancelled involved 15 choppers worth $345 million.