WASHINGTON — American taxpayers may be the victims of a ‘ghost worker’ scheme in Afghanistan, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an independent watchdog group created by Congress.
“The U.S. may be unwittingly helping to pay the salaries of nonexistent members of the Afghan National Police,” John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, wrote in a Feb. 19 letter to commanders of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which manages the majority of donated funds intended for the Afghan National Security Forces.
Sopko believes that some Afghans may be lining their pockets by collecting the paychecks of Afghan policemen whose names appear on payrolls but aren’t actually on the force. His concerns are based on conversations he had during a recent trip to Afghanistan, as well as discussions with European officials.
Concerns about ‘ghost workers’ in Afghanistan are not new. A 2011 SIGAR report raised questions about the U.N.’s management of the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, which is used to pay ANP salaries. SIGAR auditors found that neither the Afghan Ministry of Interior nor the U.N. could verify payroll data. There was “limited assurance that only ANP personnel who worked received pay,” SIGAR concluded at the time.
Since 2002, the international community has contributed $3.2 billion to LOTFA, $1.2 billion of which came from the U.S., according to SIGAR.
The European Union is withholding 100 million euros — half of its contribution to LOTFA — due to concerns about how that money is being used, including the possibility of payments to ghost workers and other forms of financial mismanagement, according to Sopko.
“We must do more to understand how U.S. funds are flowing through the Afghan banking system, particularly those used to pay ANP salaries,” Sopko wrote. “We lack an adequate understanding and oversight of how U.S. funds flow from LOTFA through the Afghan banking system to their destination in the hands of legitimate ANSF personnel.”
SIGAR has initiated an audit to scrutinize the reliability of ANSF personnel data, and look at how that data are used for both the Afghan National Army and ANP payrolls, according to Sopko.
In a March 7 memo to SIGAR, Maj. Gen. Kevin Wendel, the CSTC-A commander, said the command discovered “discrepancies” in personnel and payroll records, including 54,000 erroneous personnel identification numbers in the LOTFA database used by the United Nations Development Program to manage and account for ANP payroll on behalf of international donors.
Wendel told Sopko that the erroneous ID numbers “could have facilitated LOTFA unwittingly making payments to nonexistent members on the ANP payroll.”
Wendel outlined steps that CSTC-A has taken to address the MOI’s financial management problems, including standing up its own audit division and requesting a Department of Defense Inspector General assessment of how payroll funds are accounted for within the Afghan financial system. CSTC-A has also threatened to withhold money from the MOI if they don’t improve their financial management practices, although not until after the Afghan presidential election and the initial stages of the upcoming fighting season.
“If there is significant ghost payrolling or other mismanagement of these funds, it is not only a waste of money, but reliance on inaccurate ANP numbers could undermine U.S. transition planning as we continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan,” Sopko wrote.
The U.S. strategy calls for handing off responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Afghan security forces by the end of the year as American troops leave the country. If ANP personnel numbers appear higher than they actually are due to payroll fraud, it could lead to inaccurate and overly optimistic U.S. and NATO assessments of the ANSF’s ability to fight off Taliban insurgents after most international forces leave the country.