WASHINGTON — Among real Afghan security forces there are roughly tens of thousands of fellow soldiers on the roster that don't exist. Soldiers struggle to receive pay and forces are barely able to retake strategic areas of the country after they fall to insurgents.
And the Taliban has made it a practice to buy equipment and supplies like fuel and ammunition directly from Afghan soldiers because it's easy and less expensive, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction outlined in a report on stabilization efforts at high risk of failing.
Special Inspector General John Sopko unveiled an updated version of SIGAR's "High-Risk List" — first published in 2014 — at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday in order to highlight areas of which the new administration and Congress should consider when addressing major challenges that plague Afghanistan.
While many of the problems highlighted in the report are not new, what is striking is the progression at which these problems have eroded, according to Sopko.
Corruption runs rampant, sustainability of gains is difficult, the government can’t manage its budget effectively, contracts are often mismanaged and oversight has grown increasingly challenging since the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in December 2014 that has left roughly 10,000 troops in the country, the report said.
Moreover, the US and Afghanistan have struggled to develop a strategy and plans to improve the country’s security and infrastructure and to suppress an opium trade on the rise, the report stated.
The inspector general said it’s not all doom and gloom, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have been open and cooperative with the US government and SIGAR.
US leadership in Afghanistan is also strong, Sopko said in his speech delivered Wednesday, noting Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of Resolute Support, is "insisting on major reforms from the Afghan government."
"But all is not positive," Sopko said in his prepared remarks. "The most basic challenge that bedevils Afghanistan today is continued insecurity."
The US has given Afghanistan $64 billion since 2002 to build and support the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Air Force to combat the Taliban and other threats. This includes $3.45 billion in fiscal 2016, Sopko said. Another $43.7 billion is requested for 2017.
But with all the money spent, an Afghan force that is reportedly 320,000 strong is "basically playing whack-a-mole following the Taliban around Afghanistan," he said. The best the forces can do is "re-take" strategic areas that have temporarily fallen, Sopko added.
The inspector general took pains to note that the failures are not for a lack of courageous fighting and that roughly 5,000 Afghan security personnel were killed in action in the first eight months of 2016.
Overall, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are losing territory to insurgent groups. In November 2015, the Afghan government could claim control or "influence" over 72 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. By August 2016 that percentage had fallen to 63.4 percent.
Deteriorating conditions for security forces also makes it hard to keep soldiers, according to SIGAR.
From January 2015 through August 2016, there were 101 insider attacks that left 247 security personnel dead and 125 wounded, according to the report.
Additionally, there are more than 1,000 generals — more than the US military has on active duty — and hardly any colonels, Sopko noted. While some are deserving of the title, others are said to have bought their positions or received them through family.
"Whatever the reason, it does not make for an effective fighting force," Sopko said.
The discovery of "ghost soldiers" — personnel that never existed or that left and were never taken off the roster — were kept on payroll, with some commanders pocketing the wages while not properly paying real soldiers, according to the report.
False or sloppy record keeping led to an overestimation of the security forces’ capabilities, Sopko added.
As a result of such conditions, 75 percent of personnel losses in Afghanistan are due to soldiers going AWOL, he said.
The inspector noted that he was "encouraged," on his most recent trip to Kabul in December, that the Afghan security forces are now being paid using a Pentagon-developed verification system called the Afghan Human Resources Information Management System (AHRIMS), which uses ID cards with biometric information to measure daily attendance.
Internal corruption is also helping insurgents on the outside. For instance, the report lays out the ease in which the Taliban can purchase US-supplied weapons, fuel and ammunition directly from Afghan soldiers, Sopko noted.
Fuel is a specific area of concern because it’s easy to steal. Poor contract management by the Afghan government has given leeway for suppliers to provide lower-grade fuel for security forces or less fuel than was ordered, taking the fuel "skimmed off the top" to sell elsewhere tax free, Sopko described.
Even more concerning, there are reports that some commanders on the front line refuse to go on patrol to save fuel, which they turn around and sell on the open market. "Multiple credible sources" have told SIGAR that as much as half of the fuel purchased by the US is "siphoned off," Sopko said.
The opium trade is also growing despite the US committing more than $8 billion to counternarcotics efforts in the country. According to the report, about 60 percent of the Taliban’s funding comes from poppy production, and that production rose by 43 percent in a year. Sopko questioned whether the Afghan government can be successful without getting after the "bleeding ulcer" that is the narcotics problem.
The government is also struggling to handle the aid money it is given from donors like the US. And Sopko reported that in 2016, Afghans paid more in bribes to the government than the country is expected to generate in revenue.
And while the US has conditions on how the money it gives Afghanistan is spent, there are "severe challenges" in how the money is tracked, Sopko added.
Sopko said he hoped the High-Risk Report would "help guide" the new Congress and administration on how to tackle the major problems in Afghanistan in 2017 "to ensure a strong, better and more effective reconstruction effort in what has become America’s longest war."
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.