The U.S. government’s subsidies for Afghan security forces are allocated on a per capita basis, with the amounts reasonably pegged to the number of police and military personnel authorized to be on the rolls. But federal auditors have long worried that many personnel ostensibly in the forces are nothing more than ghost workers who don’t show up, leaving the extra funds in the hands of corrupt Afghan officials.
That’s why Defense Secretary Ashton Carter raised eyebrows when he announced a few weeks ago that the Pentagon intends to finance an Afghan security force through 2017 at its existing, authorized level of 352,000 personnel — a force more than 50 percent bigger than the NATO alliance earlier said it would support at the end of that period.
Federal auditors, in particular, are warning that this may be a hard ambition to fulfill, since no one has a solid estimate of how large that force is now, or a good way of finding out anytime soon.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko plans to testify before a House subcommittee on April 29, for example, about his enduring concern that “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies truly know how many Afghan soldiers and police are available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.”
Layers of uncertainty undermine the reliability of existing troop strength data, according to Sopko’s testimony, which was obtained in advance by the Center for Public Integrity. The NATO-led military command in Afghanistan relies on the Afghan army and police to collect it with oversight from the Interior and Defense Ministries, he said. But the army and police often use inconsistent handwritten records instead of electronic systems, and the ministries’ efforts to verify it consist only of occasional, informal visits to army units.
That fundamental — but unreliable — data forms the basis for all U.S. financial assistance and training for the Afghan security forces, according to Sopko.
The uncertainties about the troop rolls have become particularly evident in recent months. In a supplement to a quarterly report issued in January, Sopko wrote that “just hours before” its release, the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan told him the numbers his agency received between April and October, 2014, were incorrect. The commander attributed the mistake to an “accounting” issue that overstated the total between 4 and 5 percent.
The size and strength of Afghan forces has been further obscured by the U.S. military’s recent decision to classify some of the data. Several months ago, for example, the NATO-led command in Afghanistan classified its assessments of Afghan national security forces’ fighting as well as the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers. That decision was partially reversed, after some embarrassing publicity, but attrition figures for the Afghan army at the corps level and below remain classified, as do the tallies of aircraft in the country’s inventory, according to Alex Bronstein-Moffly, a spokesman for Sopko.