Tax­pay­ers foot bill to drill AWOL Afghans

‘Ghost’ sol­diers paid, not serv­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Eight Afghans train­ing with the U.S. mil­i­tary in the U.S. went AWOL in Septem­ber — part of 45 to­tal that have gone miss­ing since the be­gin­ning of 2015, the Pen­tagon con­firmed this week, rais­ing fears that they have dis­ap­peared into the shad­ows as il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

The Pen­tagon said the Afghans were screened be­fore­hand to make sure they weren’t af­fil­i­ated with ter­ror­ists or in­volved in hu­man rights abuses, sug­gest­ing a lower risk of dan­ger from the ab­scon­ders. One of the eight who fled in Septem­ber has al­ready been found by Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties as he tried to en­ter that coun­try.

The rev­e­la­tions came a day be­fore the in­spec­tor gen­eral over­see­ing U.S. ef­forts in Afghanistan was to re­veal prob­lems over there, where U.S. tax­pay­ers are still foot­ing the bill for “ghost” sol­diers — troops who ap­pear on the books but aren’t re­ally serv­ing in the Afghan Na­tional De­fense and Se­cu­rity Forces, which cover both po­lice and mil­i­tary.

“Per­sis­tent re­ports in­di­cat­ing dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the as­signed force strength of the ANDSF and the ac­tual num­ber of per­son­nel serv­ing raise ques­tions re­gard­ing whether the U.S. gov­ern­ment is tak­ing ad­e­quate steps to pre­vent tax­payer funds from be­ing spent on so­called ‘ghost’ sol­diers,” John F. Sopko, the in­spec­tor gen­eral, wrote in a let­ter to De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter in Au­gust.

The U.S. has paid $68 bil­lion over the years to bol­ster Afghanistan’s se­cu­rity forces, and ques­tions have mounted about whether that money has been well spent.

The troops that have gone AWOL in the U.S., first re­ported Thurs­day by Reuters, are part of more than 2,200 who have been brought here as “stu­dents” to learn ev­ery­thing from lead­er­ship and lan­guage to in­fantry, in­tel­li­gence, en­gi­neer­ing, polic­ing and ordnance skills. Some took part in Army Ranger train­ing.

Of the 45 who’ve ab­sconded since Jan. 1, 2015, 25 dis­ap­peared last year, and 20 have run off so far this year, in­clud­ing the eight in Septem­ber.

Adam Stump, a De­fense Depart­ment spokesman, said the Pen­tagon is try­ing to fig­ure out bet­ter ways to pre­vent folks from go­ing ab­sent with­out leave, or AWOL.

“DOD is as­sess­ing ways to strengthen el­i­gi­bil­ity cri­te­ria for train­ing in ways that will re­duce the like­li­hood of an in­di­vid­ual Afghan will­ingly ab­scond­ing from train­ing in the U.S. and go­ing AWOL,” he said.

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials did not pro­vide com­ment on whether they’re ac­tively look­ing for the ab­scon­ders.

Over­seas, the U.S. is also fac­ing trou­ble in track­ing Afghan troops.

Mr. Sopko, the in­spec­tor gen­eral, pointed to re­ports that sug­gested a large chunk of the 320,000 uni­formed mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces may not be op­er­a­tive. The As­so­ci­ated Press quoted an Afghan of­fi­cial put­ting the ac­tual force strength at only about 120,000.

In Hel­mand prov­ince, the po­lice chief said as many as 50 per­cent of the 26,000 troops as­signed there “did not ex­ist phys­i­cally” — though their salaries were still be­ing paid, Mr. Sopko re­counted in his let­ter to the De­fense Depart­ment.

The Pen­tagon told Mr. Sopko that it will take un­til next sum­mer be­fore the Afghan gov­ern­ment has a full data­base of all troops, com­plete with bio­met­ric iden­ti­fiers. As much as 30 per­cent of the army and 10 per­cent of the po­lice force aren’t in the data­base yet.

The In­te­rior Min­istry has been told it must come up with an ac­tion plan for Hel­mand prov­ince, in par­tic­u­lar, or else risk los­ing U.S. sup­port.

The ghost sol­diers are a mix­ture of some who were once among the ranks but have died or other­wise left, and oth­ers who never ex­isted in the first place. Com­man­ders end up pock­et­ing the salaries, which are par­tially paid for by the U.S.

Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers spend more than $300 mil­lion a year to pay for salaries for only “par­tially ver­i­fied” troops, the in­spec­tor gen­eral said in a 2015 re­port.

The prob­lem stretches back for years. In 2006, be­fore Mr. Sopko’s spe­cial Afghanistan in­spec­tor gen­eral’s post was cre­ated, the watch­dogs for the State and De­fense de­part­ments warned of in­flated troop num­bers.

Afghan of­fi­cials can’t even give a straight num­ber of how many troops are on their books, Mr. Sopko said.

De­fense of­fi­cials as­sured Congress ear­lier this year that they were try­ing to straighten things out.

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