Reforming the ANDSF Payroll Management System: The Limits of a Technological Solution

In my last post, I discussed the how the problem of “ghost soldiers”—soldiers who are inaccurately listed as on active duty, for purposes of generating salary payments that are then stolen—adversely affects the capacity and readiness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). To make things worse, not only is the government making salary payments to soldiers who don’t exist, but some ANDSF personnel who do exist are not receiving the full salaries they are due. Approximately 20% of Afghan National Police (ANP) and 5% of Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel are paid in cash through so-called “trusted agents,” who are supposed to facilitate salary payments to ANDSF personnel when electronic funds transfers (EFTs) are not possible, but according to reports, corruption in the system could take as much as half of an employee’s salary. And while most ANDSF personnel receive their salaries via EFT to their personal bank accounts, this only reduces the threat of pilfering in the final distribution stage; it does nothing to correct for errors, either intentional or inadvertent, generated earlier in the process.

What can be done about these problems? The U.S.-led multinational military organization working with the Afghan government to reform and strengthen the ANDSF, known as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), is applying a technological band-aid that focuses on implementing a set of computerized systems that track personnel and pay. While these measures are helpful, they do not fundamentally change the incentive structures that drive corruption, and so are unlikely to represent a long-term solution, particularly after direct U.S. involvement winds down.

The CSTC-A’s reform strategy targets—and seeks to computerize—the payroll management system. Previously, personnel data collection (by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) for the ANA and by the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for the ANP), and data reporting to CSTC-A and the Ministry of Finance (MOF), were handled manually. Various electronic databases have existed for years, but they were not linked to each other and their contents were often unverified and in many cases inaccurate. Of course, many, perhaps even most, of the data errors were honest mistakes, but the absence of sufficient safeguards created an environment ripe for exploitation. The “ghost soldier” trick, in which unit commanders falsely reported extra personnel and siphoned the money distributed for salary payments into their own bank accounts, only succeeded because no higher agency—not the MOD/MOI, not CSTC-A, not the MOF—consistently verified the information it received. The same lack of oversight would have allowed officials at various points in the process to manually alter attendance records and bank account numbers as part of a kickback scheme.

CSTC-A’s approach consists of fielding across the ANDSF four connected systems that track personnel and pay:

  • The Afghan Human Resource Information Management system (AHRIMS), which contains the biographic information of ANDSF personnel as well as information on all approved ANDSF positions;
  • The Afghan Automated Biometric Identification System (AABIS), which has been in use for several years to collect biometric data, including fingerprints, irises, and faces, of Afghan citizens;
  • The Afghan Personnel Pay System (APPS), which remains in development and is intended to integrate AHRIMS data with compensation and payroll data to process authorizations, record unit-level time and attendance data, and calculate payroll amounts. Once APPS is operational, all personnel will be paid electronically, directly to their bank account, and only if they are in an authorized position listed in AHRIMS; and
  • The ANDSF Identification Card System (ID), which is tied to AABIS and will be linked in the future to the APPS. ANDSF personnel will be required to be registered in AABIS and possess a linked ID before an APPS account is created for them.

With CSTC-A’s oversight, the MOD and MOI have also each launched a comprehensive personnel inventory, with the goal of correcting the employment status of personnel retired, separated, or killed in action. This effort is ongoing and US Forces-Afghanistan projects that the transition to APPS for both the MOI and MOD will occur before the end of 2017.

The layering of these systems and processes, CSTC-A hopes, will dramatically reduce the likelihood of payouts to ghost personnel and ensure that soldiers and policemen who are actively serving receive their salaries in full and in a timely manner. But inaccurate reporting of attendance will still be a problem. One solution on that front, which the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and CSTC-A have both repeatedly recommended, is regular in-person verification. But audits take time and resources; appreciating the need for them does not always translate into a comprehensive and sustained effort to do them.

And therein lies the reform effort’s greatest vulnerability: these process changes are being directed by CSTC-A, to protect the United States’ interest as the primary funder of the ANDSF, but must be embraced by the Afghan government ministries if they are to last. The United States and its NATO partners will not be in Afghanistan in this paternalistic role forever, and although the automated systems the CSTC-A is now trying to put in place can do a great deal, they alone cannot eliminate the potential for inaccurate reporting and fraud. Accountability is not just a matter of having the right technology—it also has a critical cultural component. One need only look at the recent “Fat Leonard” scandal (about which I wrote a separate post) for an example of massive oversight failure in the US military. The CSTC-A’s current approach, as I noted above, is a technological band-aid in the sense that it is very useful in the short-term, but doesn’t address the more fundamental problems. A viable long-term solution, as opposed to a temporary fix, must be human-centered and account for the incentive structures that drive corruption within the ANDSF. Where there is no shared ethic of accountability, corruption will persist, and no set of systems, automated and integrated as they may be, can save us.

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