An Afghan National Army soldier provides security along a highway during a patrol in Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan. The district has traditionally been a hotbed of Taliban support, but last year a fragile peace took hold.

An Afghan National Army soldier provides security along a highway during a patrol in Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan. The district has traditionally been a hotbed of Taliban support, but last year a fragile peace took hold. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Poor attendance and personnel records, a cumbersome and error-prone payroll data system and lack of oversight mean the U.S. government cannot verify how billions of dollars allotted to pay the salaries of Afghan forces are being spent, a U.S. watchdog agency said in a report released Wednesday.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction also found that poor record-keeping prevents the Afghan military from accurately determining troop strength, a number crucial for planning operations and determining the need for uniforms, ammunition and food.

Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite, who heads the Combined Security Transition Command, said it “is setting the conditions for effective and sustainable (Afghan security forces), while remaining committed to improving Afghan management deficiencies and system problems.”

The command “has taken an aggressive posture in the past year, implementing systems and processes, now that we have transitioned from our combat mission to a train, advise, assist role,” Semonite said in a statement.

Since 2009, the U.S. has provided more than $2.3 billion to pay Afghan National Army, or ANA, and air force salaries, the report said. Because of the problems in the personnel and payroll processes and lack of verification, it is not clear whether that money is being spent appropriately.

“This means that some payments may be diverted to the wrong individuals and that deserving ANA personnel may not be receiving the correct amounts they are owed,” SIGAR said.

Since the effort to rebuild them started over a decade ago, the Afghan armed forces have been plagued by high attrition rates, including desertions and defections, with trained soldiers changing sides and joining the insurgents. In a separate report last month, SIGAR said that in the past year, the number of troops had declined by more than 15,000 because of desertion and retention problems, as well as combat casualties.

In Herat, SIGAR investigators found that spaces for signatures on an army roster were instead filled with check marks that “appeared to have been recorded by a single individual.”

In some commands, the investigators found that up to a third of a unit’s supposed strength was missing during their visit, that some servicemembers could not produce identification cards and that others had no personnel records at all.

The system the Afghan army and national police use for human resources data cannot differentiate between active and inactive personnel and cannot track personnel by their position and identification numbers, SIGAR said. Though that situation is expected to be remedied by July, the Defense Ministry now uses a separate, manual process to compile ANA personnel totals based on daily attendance records to submit monthly to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.

“It’s not just a problem of how many soldiers you have, but which,” said Alex Bronstein-Moffly, a SIGAR spokesman. “Is a unit missing its captain? Its medic?”

Ideally, American officials should be able to confirm troop data from the ANA, but the report found that personnel shortages make it impossible for a U.S. regulator to physically confirm the roll numbers as they are taken at individual sites.

As the drawdown of U.S. troops continues, that is likely to become even more difficult.

“With the U.S. government and the international community planning to continue funding ANA salaries for several more years, it is crucial that [Defense Department] and the MOD improve their ability to verify the accuracy of ANA personnel numbers and salary disbursements,” the report said.

SIGAR recommended that U.S. Forces Afghanistan, in conjunction with the coalition and the Defense Ministry, implement additional controls on the daily attendance process at the unit level, including having oversight personnel present to verify the sign-in and sign-out process.

An electronic system to track and report ANA personnel and payroll data and calculate salaries should be fully operational by April 2017, SIGAR said.

Meanwhile, SIGAR said the U.S. command should implement a verification plan, which the command agreed was needed but said the Defense Ministry must play a leading role because of a lack of personnel. Twitter: @JadASleiman

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