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Phantom Troops, Taliban Fighting, and Wasted Money — It's Springtime in Afghanistan

The latest US audit of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan show a troubling lack of oversight and cooperation, which is damaging security and jeopardizing the country's economic future.
Photo via Flickr

It's springtime, which means blossoming flowers, Opening Day baseball, and the start of the Taliban's annual campaign to violently drive foreigners out of Afghanistan. But instead of calling it spring, NATO calls it "fighting season," which for the allied coalition is one of only two seasons in the country. (The other is "poppy season," when the Taliban and the poppy harvest make it clear that America's plans to counter narcotics in the country are going every bit as poorly as America's plans to counter the insurgency.)


Spring is also when the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) releases one of his quarterly reports [pdf below]. That happened Wednesday, and it's only slightly less discouraging than the annual resumption of official Taliban hostilities.

This latest report features the usual litany of failed attempts at reconstruction. Most notable are the revelations that the US has no idea how many soldiers are in the Afghan National Army (ANA), and that American efforts to jumpstart Afghan mining are liking going to fail spectacularly. While troop numbers matter in the short term, the ongoing struggle to turn mining into a profitable enterprise has larger long-term ramifications for the quest to create a stable Afghanistan.

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SIGAR reveals that American estimates of Afghan troop end strength are just that — estimates, with few reliable systems in place to corroborate the figures being reported by ANA leadership to their US advisers. That's alarming, given how rapidly the existing numbers were declining throughout 2014, and SIGAR points out shortcomings in Afghan army personnel systems that make it fairly easy to inflate troop numbers.

For example, the Afghans' electronic human resources system can't track ANA personnel by their position or by an individual identification number, so troop numbers are reported via manual attendance spreadsheets. There is, however, rampant illiteracy in the Afghan army, which means many soldiers simply sign in with a checkmark instead of writing their own names. Turns out that's not the best way to keep track of people: SIGAR field visits found spreadsheets full of checkmarks that looked like they had all been done by the same person.


Illiteracy has also hampered efforts to fully computerize the ANA; this includes its payroll system, which has had its own accounting problems. Based on a 2012 Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General audit that found that Afghan army payroll between April 2009 and January 2011 had "$47.8 million in absolute errors," the IG recommended going to a fully electronic payroll system. But the DOD ultimately decided such a system would be too complicated for a largely illiterate force, and during its audit SIGAR learned that plans to install such a system had been canceled. What's clear is that the Afghan army is not ready for the 21st century. What's less clear is how many millions of dollars have been spent on troops that don't exist just because the US wasn't able to teach the Afghans how to use a computer.

Currently, it's nearly impossible for the US to verify numbers it gets from the Afghans. Due to the drawdown, the reduced number of Americans available to deal with the Afghans means that analyzing data is often left to the discretion of individuals. In the past, Americans would work closely with Afghan forces to verify numbers as they were reported. But in this latest audit, one adviser told SIGAR he was "using his own familiarity with the size of each ANA unit to identify potentially erroneous figures in the [Ministry of Defense's] reporting." And according to that adviser, his knowledge was never documented. Which means this quality assurance process, tenuous and tied to one person's own memory, won't be passed on to whoever follows the adviser. And even more American money will disappear into the Afghan abyss.


It got so bad that the US embassy was unaware of a $39.6 million TFBSO project until someone from the Afghan government thanked the American ambassador for all his support.

SIGAR's findings never sit well with the US military, and this report is no exception. In a written response to SIGAR, Major General Todd Semonite of Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan (CSTC-A) said that it's "easy to question why payroll systems and processes were not focused on earlier in this fight…. Well, we were focused on saving American lives!! Now… we focus on the accountability of our critical resources." Which is exactly the kind of thing the person responsible for Afghan army oversight would say.

It's also what the DOD has been saying for at least three years. In an April 2012 report to Congress, there was "a deliberate decision made when the plan for expanding the [Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)] was formulated, (that) the initial focus for the ANSF was building combat capability and leveraging [International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)] enablers to support the ANSF. As ANSF achieves its end strength goals, ISAF is increasingly focusing on development of ANA enablers, particularly logistics capabilities."

To be fair to the DOD, there was progress made after that. By December of 2013, another DOD report to Congress stated that the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD)personnel department was able to operate with only "coalition oversight"; it was given the second-highest capability rating. The next level up would have been "autonomous operations," meaning the Afghans would have been able to operate on their own.


But somehow in the intervening 16 months, the MOD appears to have forgotten how to keep track of its own people.

Even if the Afghans manage to pull together enough soldiers and secure the country — an outcome already in doubt given the declining troop numbers throughout last year — the problem of Afghanistan's financial future remains. Much of that rests on the success or failure of Afghan mining, oil, and gas, and it's this extractives sector that drew SIGAR's attention, specifically the activities of the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO). SIGAR details its findings related to $488 million the US government put up to support extractives projects, $282 million of which was administered by TFBSO. (USAID administered the remaining $206 million.) The goal of all of that money was to support Afghan government efforts to kickstart the country's nascent gas, oil, and mining industries.

TFBSO was founded by then-Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley during the Iraq war for the purpose of connecting private investors with Iraqi businesses. Most of those businesses had been run by the Iraqi government, which complicated Brinkley's efforts, but by his own account TFBSO did a remarkable job of connecting investors with Iraqis who needed some private sector savvy in order to get around all the US government red tape. The concept was embraced by a series of American commanders, including General David Petraeus, and though Brinkley left TFBSO in 2011, the organization remained.


The task force soon found its way to Afghanistan, where it continued its habit of avoiding cooperation with other US government agencies. In Iraq, this behavior had won Brinkley and his colleagues few friends, but he did maintain the support of senior military officers, which kept TFBSO in good stead.

Afghanistan, however, is a different war. According to SIGAR, during TFBSO's time in Afghanistan, it failed to coordinate with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or the State Department. The war on terror has always suffered from a dearth of interagency cooperation, but in this case it appears to have been exacerbated by TFBSO, which operates under the auspices of the Pentagon.

The sector of extractives has huge implications for Afghanistan's financial future, and the lack of coordination between stakeholders like TFBSO, USAID, the State Department, and the Afghan government has doomed many of their efforts to advance the sector. At one point it got so bad that the US embassy was unaware of a $39.6 million TFBSO project until someone from the Afghan government thanked the American ambassador for all his support. According to SIGAR, behavior like that resulted in "divergent strategies and poor working relationships," and led to SIGAR raising questions about the longterm sustainability of TFBSO efforts.

In trying to answer those questions, SIGAR found that no US agency plans to continue any kind of monitoring of the work begun by TFBSO. So that work, whatever it was, stands a good chance of coming to an end, and the hundreds of millions spent by the task force will have gone to waste. Without longterm oversight assistance, something as crucial to Afghanistan's future as a sensible approach to extracting natural resources will likely fail, and America will see little return on its massive investment in the country.


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A country that can't account for its army or exploit its natural resources isn't a country — it's a failed state. Waiting in the wings to capitalize on that failure are both the insurgents and the Chinese; one to take advantage of failed security, the other to take advantage of failed American reconstruction efforts. The most likely outcome is that the US will continue to bolster Afghan security while simultaneously further losing its grip on Afghanistan's economic future. China has been more than happy to stand by and watch the US try to secure the country, and is now poised to reap the benefits of that security through lucrative contracts to exploit Afghanistan's natural resources.

What the White House has long wanted in Afghanistan is a successful intervention followed by someone else swooping in to pick up the tab to continue stabilizing the country. Right now President Barack Obama is ready to settle for an intervention that seemingly went well enough that foreign investment could eventually, conceivably, flourish. A safe and secure Afghanistan is the key to regional stability. But after 13 years, the US is ready to let someone else take a shot.

Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani

Photo via Flickr