The Cable

The Afghan Cops Who Never Were

The U.S. watchdog for reconstruction in Afghanistan found that the Afghan National Police might be lying about how many people are in uniform -- and pocketing the extra cash.

Afghan policemen stand guard as two US s
Afghan policemen stand guard as two US soldiers (C) arrive at the site of a twin suicide attack in a parking lot holding dozens of trucks supplying the NATO-run Kandahar Air Base on June 6, 2012. A twin suicide bombing attack killed 23 people on June 6 in a car park crammed with vehicles supplying a major NATO base in Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, police said. A suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck first and as a crowd gathered to help the victims a second bomber walked into their midst and set off explosives strapped to his body, provincial police chief General Abdul Raziq told AFP. AFP PHOTO/ Jangir (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/GettyImages)

The United States spends more than $300 million on Afghan National Police (ANP) force salaries each year. But the latest audit from the American watchdog for Afghan reconstruction found that lack of oversight may have allowed ANP personnel to inflate staff numbers and pocket a large chunk of that budget for themselves.

And although audit agencies with the multinational military force in Afghanistan identified weaknesses in the payroll system as early as 2006, the Pentagon and its international partners still don’t seem to have taken appropriate measures to stop the fraud from occurring.

In other words, for almost the last decade, the United States may have been paying for Afghan cops who aren’t.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found there are almost twice as many ANP identification cards circulating as there are active police personnel. That means there could be just about as many “ghost police officers” — or invalid or uncontrolled identification cards — as there are actual active-duty police. As of February 2014, over 300,000 identification cards had been distributed by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior when there were fewer than 157,000 assigned personnel. In some cases, former police officers who are no longer on active duty may still be on the payroll and could be receiving monthly payments they haven’t earned.

These extra cards don’t only open the door to fraud, but also pose a threat to the security of police bases nationwide.

ANP officials in two provinces told Sopko’s team they do not regularly use identification cards for any purpose at all, and in one instance, the inspectors found that 11 out of 35 Afghan police personnel on duty did not have their identification cards on them; two of them had at that point waited over a year to receive replacement cards. That’s no small problem in a country plagued by security breaches, including deadly terrorist attacks by police collaborating with the Taliban.

Sopko said that the two electronic systems used to keep track of payroll data are not fully functional and that because daily attendance is not electronically recorded, police could get paid whether they are showing up to work or not.

And while some ANP personnel might be getting paid more than they deserve, lack of oversight means other personnel might be getting cheated out of their salaries by corrupt officials. Nearly 20 percent of ANP staff is paid in cash, but there is no electronic payroll-monitoring system in place. In some cases, the audit said, a police officer might receive as little as half his monthly salary, while the agent trusted to disperse the cash pockets the rest.

The United States faced similar oversight challenges in its reconstruction projects in Iraq. In November, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that after the United States spent more than $20 billion training and equipping the Iraqi Army, there were at least 50,000 soldiers on the payroll who did not exist. Those who did exist proved their lack of mettle when the Islamic State went on a rampage this summer and Iraqi soldiers ditched their equipment and fled for their lives.

And, just as seems to be the case in Afghanistan, officers in Iraq pretend to have more soldiers on their books than they really do, only to pocket the extra salaries — some $600 a month– for themselves.

ANP salaries and other payroll costs are covered by the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, a joint program established by the United States and other international donors and overseen by the United Nations Development Program. As of last July, $3.6 billion had been contributed to the fund, and $1.3 billion of that came directly from the United States.

But while billions of dollars have been pumped into the ANP since 2002, corruption and rule of law still top Sopko’s list of the seven most high-risk threats to reconstruction in post-2014 Afghanistan. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month, Sopko said that poor record-keeping and oversight were only perpetuating the problem.

“The problem is that American taxpayer dollars and our strategic and humanitarian interests in Afghanistan are being placed at unnecessarily high levels of risk by widespread failure to track results, anticipate problems, and implement prudent countermeasures,” he said.

The Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), the Pentagon branch that oversees U.S. government assistance to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior, had the opportunity to respond to Sopko’s audit before it was released to the public on Monday, Jan. 12. The CSTC-A welcomed all five of his recommendations, including a coordination effort among various ANP donors to implement a payroll and personnel tracking system. And the CSTC-A even said it will require the Afghan government to comply with strict regulations on record-keeping or face funding penalties.

U.S. and NATO troops have ended their Afghanistan mission this year. But the risk of such financial mismanagement there — along with all the attendant security lapses — is only going to get bigger.

Photo via STRDEL/AFP

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