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 government’s 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 Obama’s 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.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“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 he’d 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, Sopko’s 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 force’s 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 don’t have the right numbers. We appreciate how difficult it is to get the correct numbers – but we need accurate numbers because we’re using those numbers to pay ANSF salaries, supply equipment and so forth."
The financial stakes behind the numbers are huge. Sopko’s report said Congress had appropriated more than $51 billion so far “to build, equip, train and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.”
U.S. officials and watchdog groups have raised alarms previously about the existence of “ghost” personnel in the Afghan forces, whose salaries are still funded by Western aid but who quit the units to which they were assigned. The annual attrition rate for the Afghan army is nearly 30 percent, according to U.S. military commanders, provoking an enormous churn in the ranks that complicates accurate record-keeping.
Part of the problem, according to Sopko’s report, is that Western officials have allowed “the Afghan forces to report their own personnel strength numbers,” which are based on handwritten ledgers in “decentralized, unlinked and inconsistent systems.” The Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which oversees the training effort, reported last year that “there was no viable method of validating personnel numbers,” the report added.
U.S. officials have added to the confusion by adopting a new definition of what it means to be a member of the Afghan security forces, loosening its terminology in a way that enlarges the ranks to include all those “recruited” rather than those trained and field-ready.
For example, the Defense Department’s so-called Section 1230 reports, which track the progress of the war, including efforts to build an effective Afghan security force, said in April 2012 that “the ANSF are ahead of schedule to achieve the October 2012 end-strength of 352,000, including subordinate goals of 195,000 soldiers and 157,000 police.”
But last December’s Section 1230 report – the most recent progress report available – changed the way it referred to the 352,000 figure. “The ANSF met its goal of recruiting a force of approximately 352,000 by October 1, 2012,” it said. Some of these personnel were awaiting induction at training centers, according to the report, which added that the Afghan army’s recruits weren’t scheduled to be “trained, equipped and fielded until December 2013.”
The Pentagon is still working on its written response to the special inspector general’s report. But a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, told the Center for Public Integrity that "fluctuation in overall strength of the ANSF due to recruitment and attrition is expected." He said ANSF strength had risen to 336,365 in March, but he added that the focus of the training mission now is on “the quality of the force; developing the right balance of seniority, skills and specialization,” more than on the number of trainees.
Despite the squishiness of the data, U.S. military officials repeatedly have cited the buildup in Afghan forces as the principal reason for declaring the 11-year-old war a success.
“For the last few years, many people have shied away from using the word ‘win,’ ” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 16. “I personally have used that word since arriving in Afghanistan.”