Corruption in Afghanistan and its role in the ongoing instability of the country has been discussed on this blog before (see, for example, here, here, and here), but for the most part in fairly general, strategic-level terms. In this post, I’m going to zoom in and explain in greater detail two particularly insidious types of corruption that plague the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF): 1) the problem of “ghost” soldiers, and 2) the pilfering of fuel, weapons, and other supplies intended for security force personnel. These forms of corruption leave Afghan security forces hollow and ill-equipped to accomplish the missions assigned to them. As long as pervasive corruption continues to undermine force capacity, readiness, and morale, the prospect of Afghan government forces gaining the upper hand on the Taliban and other insurgents remains slim.
“Ghost soldiers” are fictitious troops added to personnel rosters by corrupt officials who then collect the extra pay allocated for these (in some cases deceased, in some cases no longer active, and in some cases totally made-up) soldiers. To give a sense of the scale of the problem, consider the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army. In 2015, local officials suggested that up to 40 percent of names on the books did not correspond to actively-serving soldiers. For the 215th Corps, with an authorized strength of 18,000, that would mean fewer than 11,000 soldiers were actually available to fight. Earlier this year, US Army Major General Richard Kaiser, commander of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CTSC-A), told the Wall Street Journal that the US had removed from the Afghan military payrolls more than 30,000 suspected ghost soldiers. That group of names amounted to over one-sixth of the Afghan army, significantly less than 40 percent but nevertheless a staggering figure. For reference, 30,000 is the same number of additional US troops President Obama sent to Afghanistan in December 2009 in a surge deemed necessary to turn the tide in the conflict.
The problem is not limited to the military branches: both the Afghan National Police (ANP) and sub-national police forces suffer from the same malady. In a 2011 audit of the ANP payroll process, for example, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a Congressionally-established independent oversight body, found that “irreconcilable and unverified data, a lack of data-reconciliation and verification procedures, and difficulties implementing electronic systems continued to pose challenges to the CSTC-A, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA), and the Afghan Ministries of Interior (MOI) and Finance (MOF).” Five years later, in June 2016, the police chief of Helmand Province, where the ghost-filled 215th Corps operated, claimed half of his police force still consisted of ghost personnel.
The inevitable result is that military and police units are overtaxed and frequently ineffective. Troop strength and readiness information is a critical factor for military planners when deciding which units to task with which missions, and if the data they rely on is grossly inaccurate, the lives of the soldiers who do have to fight are imperiled. The same risk exists for the police. The fact that this form of corruption leads to higher casualty rates for Afghan soldiers and police should be sufficient reason to pay attention, but it’s also worth pointing out the financial cost to the United States and other international partners that fund the ANDSF: in 2015, a SIGAR audit found that more than $300 million in U.S.-funded salary payments to the ANP were based on incomplete and/or unverified data, and in January 2017, a senior US defense official estimated that millions of dollars continue to be wasted each month on ghost personnel.
Another problem that similarly undermines the capacity and capabilities of the ANDSF is the pilfering by both US and Afghan officials of fuel, food, and equipment intended for their fellow service members. Corruption of this kind harms twice: not only does it deprive Afghan forces of what they need to sustain the fight against the Taliban and ISIS, but in many cases those same supplies are ending up in the hands of the enemy through black market sales. And U.S. military personnel and contractors have been complicit in, and sometimes actively participated, in the pilferage and sale of vital supplies. In 2013, for example, one current U.S. Army soldier, one former soldier, and one civilian contractor were sentenced for facilitating the theft of approximately 70 truckloads of fuel, worth in excess of $1.2 million; in 2015, one current and three former U.S. Army soldiers pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme that resulted in the theft of fuel valued at more than $10 million; and in 2016, three more Army soldiers were sentenced for a conspiracy that cost the United States government an additional $765,000. Because the vast majority of funding for the ANDSF comes from the United States (at a cost of approximately $5 billion a year), these losses have not been crippling. But if and when the Afghan government begins to shoulder more of the load, this sort of waste will become unsustainable.
These problems of endemic corruption are not new, but little progress has been made despite awareness of them at the highest levels of the US and Afghan governments. It’s 2017 and still “Taliban commanders give instructions to their forces to buy weapons, ammunition, and fuel from the Afghan army and police.” In a follow-on post, I’ll look at what the US and Afghan governments are doing to combat these forms of corruption, and how they might be more successful in the future. But for now, I’ll conclude by again quoting SIGAR: Of the risk areas currently threatening reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, “the questionable capabilities of the Afghan security forces and pervasive corruption are the most critical. Without capable security forces, Afghanistan will never be able to stand on its own. Without addressing entrenched corruption, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government will remain in a perilous state. If these two risk areas are not addressed, I fear that our reconstruction efforts could ultimately fail.”