WASHINGTON -- Since the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, a signature goal of the war has been to increase Afghan national security forces and give their members the skills to vanquish domestic terrorist groups and other security threats on their own.
But as the Obama administration prepares to pull 34,000 U.S. troops out of the country by next February and most of the remaining troops by the end of 2014, estimates of the size of the Afghan force trained to take over this lead security role suddenly have grown fuzzy and possibly unreliable.
A new report made public this week by the governments top watchdog over U.S. spending in Afghanistan casts doubt on whether the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government met a goal set in 2011 of enlisting and training a total of 352,000 Afghan security personnel by October 2012. Pentagon officials have said that target was meant to strike a balance between what was needed and what America and its allies could deliver in concert with the Afghan government. Earlier this year, in conjunction with President Barack Obamas State of the Union address, the White House declared that the goal had been met.
But on Tuesday, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko challenged that assessment, which White House officials said was based on data supplied by the Pentagon.
The goal to train and field 352,000 Afghan National Security Forces by last October was not met, Sopko said in his latest quarterly report. Instead, as of Feb. 18, the number of personnel in the Afghan National Army, National Police and air force totaled 332,753, about 20,000 fewer, according to data Sopko said hed collected from the coalition-led transition command in Kabul.
Sopko said Afghan troop and police strength was declining, not rising belying a long-standing goal of the U.S.-led intervention. There are now 4,700 fewer personnel than a year ago, he noted, drawing on the same data that the Pentagon routinely uses.
The discrepancy between the force size the White House has claimed and what the Afghans have been able to field is not a trivial one, Sopkos report suggested. Accurate and reliable accounting for ANSF personnel is necessary to ensure that U.S. funds that support the ANSF are used for legitimate and eligible costs, it said. ANSF stands for Afghan National Security Forces.
As a result, the discrepancy has triggered a wider U.S. audit of "the extent to which DOD reviews and validates the information collected" from Afghan officials, Sopko says in the report, referring to the Department of Defense. The audit will broadly assess "the reliability and usefulness of what the Afghans and the U.S. government say about the forces size.
"We are not implying that anyone is manipulating data, Sopko said in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity. We are raising a concern that we dont have the right numbers. We appreciate how difficult it is to get the correct numbers but we need accurate numbers because were using those numbers to pay ANSF salaries, supply equipment and so forth."
The financial stakes behind the numbers are huge. Sopkos report said Congress had appropriated more than $51 billion so far to build, equip, train and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.