Thousands of 'Ghost Soldiers' Likely Still on Afghan Payroll
The Afghan army likely still has tens of thousands of "ghost soldiers" on its payrolls and Taliban commanders are apparently buying U.S.-supplied weapons from local troops, a U.S. government inspector said Wednesday.
U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan have long criticized endemic corruption in the Afghan security forces, but 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion the problem remains persistent, said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
"Afghan commanders often pocket the paychecks of 'ghost soldiers' for whom the U.S. is paying salaries," Sopko said in prepared remarks to a Washington think tank.
"The number of ghost soldiers is significant, likely reaching into the tens of thousands."
He added there is evidence the Taliban have instructed field commanders to buy U.S.-supplied weapons, fuel, and ammunition from Afghan soldiers.
"Because to do so is both easier and less expensive for the insurgents," he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Afghan police and army units took over providing security for Afghanistan from NATO in 2015.
Their first year was something of a disaster, when they sustained more than 5,000 fatalities and saw the regional capital Kunduz briefly captured by the Taliban.
Numbers of casualties were significantly higher in 2016.
Sopko, who frequently delivers scathing reports detailing Afghan corruption and hapless U.S. reconstruction efforts, delivered his latest assessment just weeks before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
Just as President Barack Obama did eight years ago, Trump is inheriting an Afghan conflict that seems impossible to resolve any time soon.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, has called the situation a "stalemate."
Obama has cut the U.S. troop presence to about 8,400 but Sopko warned of the consequences of drawdowns.
"Withdraw, and the democratic government may well fall. Stay, and continue what we have been doing and we may be faced with what General Dunford has described as a stalemate," Sopko warned.
Including war fighting, U.S. costs for Afghanistan now total near $1 trillion.