America Is Doubling Down on Afghanistan

By Matthew Gault

The United States wants to keep Afghanistan’s security forces afloat at least through 2017. Why? Because Kabul can’t.

During a press conference at Camp David on March 23, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced Washington’s intention to double down on Afghanistan.

“Today we can announce that the Defense Department intends to seek funding for Afghan forces to sustain an end strength of 352,000 personnel through 2017,” Carter said.

American taxpayers will spend $4 billion on Afghanistan’s soldiers in 2015. It’s likely that Kabul will need that level of funding for years to come. Corrupt and incompetent, the Afghan government can’t afford to pay its security forces.

Worse, recent audits of the Afghan security forces highlight a system of corruption among the country’s military leadership.

The Pentagon used to pay for Afghan soldiers’ food, but stopped when it discovered the Islamic republic’s bureaucrats were pocketing a lot of the money.

NATO established a $10-million trust fund for Afghan women soldiers. Now some of Kabul’s commanders don’t want to pay the women out of their normal budgets. They argue those salaries should come from the trust fund instead.

Soon, soldiers without bank accounts will make 20 percent less than those willing to do business with Kabul’s famously corrupt banking system. If an Afghan police officer doesn’t have a bank account, Kabul might not pay him at all.


During the past few months, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has fought with the commanders of the Resolute Support Mission — the NATO-led group in charge of helping keep peace in the country.

SIGAR wanted information about the Afghan security force’s troop strength, but the Pentagon wouldn’t talk. It said the information was classified and releasing it would put soldiers in danger.

The military relented and on March 3, SIGAR published a supplement to its quarterly report that included some hard numbers about the foreign force.

The combined total of Afghanistan’s army, police and civilian support staff is just shy of 330,000 — well below the total that the Resolute Support Mission wants defending the country.

“The U.S. military’s inconsistent reporting on ANSF strength numbers indicates long-standing and ongoing problems with accountability and personnel tracking,” SIGAR noted in its supplement.

Desertion and casualties have driven the numbers down — and Kabul is working to recruit more — but signing up to defend Afghanistan might be a losing proposition for potential soldiers. There’s a bunch of shady sh*t going on that might make some think twice before joining.


More than 800 women serve in the Afghan army. That’s less than half a percent of the army’s total strength. Which makes sense. It’s hard for women to serve in a conservative Islamic country where a woman’s role is often relegated to raising kids and cleaning the home.

To lend support, NATO established a trust fund of $10 million. It’s supposed to pay for education, equipment and public relations. But Afghanistan’s army brass have other ideas.

“Some commanders — perhaps resistant to women in the [army] — are reportedly using this unique funding source as an excuse not to use regular funding sources for women’s programs,” SIGAR wrote in its recent supplement.

The Afghan commanders would prefer to pay women’s salaries from the trust fund, not from their own budget. But NATO never intended the trust fund to pay salaries.

“The NATO [Afghan army] Trust Fund does not pay female [army] soldiers’ salaries,” an official with NATO-led Resolute Support military official told War Is Boring. “All … soldier salaries, both male and female, are paid by [Combined Security Transition Command — Afghanistan].”

“The $10-million allocation for [Afghan army’s] Women’s Programs is for public relations and advertising, building improvements, training courses and seminars, organizational clothing and individual equipment, community outreach recruitment, internal security equipment and printing.”

That all sounds promising. But the argument between Afghan commanders and their American sugar daddies continues, and the money sits in the bank unspent.


Besides base pay, Afghan soldiers and police once received cash to pay for food. But the Pentagon put a stop to that in 2013.

“Funding for food ceased on Dec. 21, 2013, after CSTC-A suspected widespread fraud by the [Afghan Ministry of Defense],” the SIGAR report explained.

“CSTC-A determined food funding lacked necessary transparency and accountability,” a Resolute Support Mission military official told War Is Boring.

“Processes to prevent internal budget over executions were non-existent within the [army] and [police], there were inaccurate daily rates per soldier or policeman, and filing of supporting documentation was unorganized.”

So Afghanistan’s military leadership was over-reporting the amount of cash it needed for food, and pocketing a part of what its allies paid to feed its soldiers. It sounds outlandish, but remember this is a country with so much systemic corruption it loses a quarter of its budget at the border.

So Afghan soldiers no longer get paid for food. Which is understandable if its leaders are skimming off the top, but sucks for troops doing a dangerous job in a impoverished country.


Worse is the punishment leveled against Afghan soldiers who don’t want to deposit their money in banks.

Kabul has long struggled to properly pay its soldiers and police. The easiest and best way to pay troops is through a check or direct deposit, but Afghanistan is a mostly rural country and many of its citizens either don’t trust or have access to banks.

So Afghanistan — using money it gets from America — pays soldiers in cash. But that cash doesn’t always make it to the soldier. See, Kabul hires people it calls “trusted agents” to transport the cash to its soldiers and police.

The trusted agents are supposed to walk the cash directly to troops waiting for their paychecks, but those payments often end up a little light. The trusted agents have a habit of skimming off the top — sometimes as much as half of what they’re supposed to deliver.

The Pentagon has a unique solution to the problem — a 20-percent reduction in salary for security forces who aren’t paid by direct deposit. Worse, police who don’t have a bank account won’t get paid at all.

“CSTC-A will provide salary funding to cover 80 percent of authorized [army] positions not being paid electronically,” the Resolute Support Mission told War Is Boring.

“CSTC-A will not provide salary funding for authorized [police] positions not paid electronically.”

That’s terrible. The “trusted agent” system was a horror show of corruption, but the fallout from cutting funding to Afghanistan’s police force might beworse.

Kabul doesn’t have the money to pay its police without America’s help. To make up for the missing money, Afghanistan will ask for donations from the international community.

“Currently, there are no donors providing funds for [army] salaries,” the Resolute Support Mission explained.

So no one is picking up the extra 20 percent. The police are luckier. Several countries came together and established a trust fund to get cash to the Afghan police who’d otherwise be missing their salaries.

It’s hard to be a soldier or cop in Afghanistan. It’s dangerous work. The Taliban often target the families of security forces. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Afghan government scams its own troops every chance it gets.

And U.S. taxpayers will keep footing the bill, at least for the next few years. What else can Washington do? Afghanistan’s army could collapse without America’s financial support.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Matthew Gault
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