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Afghan Taliban Capitalizing on ‘Ghost’ Troops Plaguing U.S.-Funded Security Forces

The Taliban is benefiting from corrupt leaders within the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) who choose to exploit U.S.-funded salaries by inflating the number of troops with so-called “ghost,” or nonexistent, soldiers to receive more money, according to two recently issued assessments.

Corruption problems linked to the funding and salaries of the ANDSF, which includes police and military units, have long plagued the Afghan forces, reveal the two evaluation reports.

The two ANDSF assessments were respectively authored by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an NGO, and the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a congressionally appointed watchdog agency.

“Within the ANDSF, reports of corruption have been widespread and varied, including but not limited to, participation in the drug trade, extortion, pay-for-position schemes, bribery, land grabbing, and selling U.S. and NATO-supplied equipment, sometimes even to insurgents [like that Taliban],” points out SIGAR.

At the end of April 2016, SIGAR warned the U.S. government did not know how many ANDSF troops “actually exist,” are available for duty, and whether they are truly capable of defending their own country.

That revelation came amid a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan fueled by a renascent Taliban, a growing Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), and a resilient al-Qaeda, among other terrorist threats.

The U.S.-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) is reportedly taking action to address the problems linked to nonexistent soldiers, such as requiring the use of biometrics to verify enrollment.

However, the transition command has conceded that the efforts “will not completely eliminate the problem of ghost soldiers,” reveals SIGAR.

SIGAR notes that through a January 2015 SIGAR audit, it found:

ANP [Afghan National Police] personnel were sometimes being paid for days not worked, or not receiving pay either in-full or partially, as “trusted agent” payroll systems allowed senior of cials to skim police wages, as well as benefit from ghost police salaries.

Moreover, SIGAR has learned that Afghan soldiers are selling U.S. taxpayer-funded weapons and vehicles “to the enemy” fighting and killing American troops in Afghanistan.

This year, the U.S. government identified as many as 30,000 nonexistent troops.

Citing the Associated Press (AP), SIGAR reported that the estimated number of “ghost soldiers” was much higher 2016, likely reaching the hundreds of thousands.

SIGAR’s new audit points out, “To mitigate the threat of ghost soldiers, in January 2017 the United States withheld financial support for 30,000 ANDSF salaries and stipulated it would pay salaries only to soldiers who were biometrically enrolled in the Afghan personnel system.”

The ANDSF has received the bulk (over $70 billion) of the nearly $120 billion in reconstruction funds that the United States has devoted to Afghanistan since the war began about 16 years ago.

Echoing SIGAR, the Bureau reports that the “endemic corruption” in Afghanistan, particularly the “ghost soldiers” issue, could prove a stumbling block to U.S. President Donald Trump’s goal of stabilizing the country.

Christopher Kolenda, a former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan turned analyst, described the corruption problem facing the Afghan security forces as “the Achilles heel of the 2009-2011 surge,” notes the Bureau.

It “continues to undermine efforts for a successful outcome,” adds the former commander.

Despite the billions of funding and years of U.S. training, the ANDSF continues to suffer from capability lapses, in part attributed to the leadership claiming nonexistent forces are holding the front lines that American troops have fought and died to reconquer from the Taliban and other jihadist groups.

The Bureau notes:

We have uncovered systemic corruption that demonstrates that the Afghan forces holding the front line were significantly undermanned, their numbers falsely inflated with so-called “ghost soldiers” or security force personnel that existed only on paper.

Across Afghanistan, the Taliban has profited from the endemic corruption and mismanagement that plagues the Afghan forces. President Donald Trump has signalled that yet more troops will be sent to Afghanistan. … But without addressing these issues, any gains made by sending additional US troops will likely be fragile.

Meanwhile, SIGAR also points out that the “ghost soldiers” problem has undermined the ANDSF’s ability to fight the enemy.

The watchdog agency reveals:

Ghost soldiers remained an elusive challenge to ANA [Afghan National Army] development. Such a phenomenon not only resulted in fraudulent budget forecasting, but also overstated ANA force strength, undermined recruiting and planning forecasts, and undercut battlefield performance.

“Afghan police leadership was accused of exploiting internationally funded police salaries by inflating rosters with ghost personnel in order to receive more funds,” it adds later. “Inflated numbers corroded combat readiness of police units, as actual staffing levels were unknown.”

President Trump, who unveiled his Afghan war strategy last month, has decided to deploy an additional 3,000 American troops to Afghanistan, bringing the number of U.S. forces to about 14,000.

Former Cmdr. Kolenda told the Bureau, “140,000 international troops could not solve that problem. 3,500 more American troops now cannot do so, either. Only the Afghan government can solve it, and they have yet to demonstrate the willingness to do so.”

Corruption problems resulted in the Pentagon’s losing “much of its ability” to monitor the effectiveness and capability of the Afghan security forces as the Taliban gained strength, John Sopko, the chief at SIGAR, said in April 2016.

“To address the issue of ghost soldiers, CSTC-A [ Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan] is implementing four automated systems to address personnel and pay accountability,” notes SIGAR in its new report.

“Such complex systems will, however, still require oversight to determine that personnel are properly accounted for and active in the ANDSF,” it adds. “Furthermore, modern infrastructure is required to operate these systems, including reliable electricity and internet access with proper bandwidth. CSTC-A, though hopeful, has acknowledged that the systems will not completely eliminate the problem of ghost soldiers.”

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