KABUL, Afghanistan -- Combat casualties, desertion and other issues have left the Afghan National Army the smallest it has been since 2011, even as the country's security forces face their first fighting season without major international military support.
According to newly declassified data provided by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, between February and November 2014, more than 15,000 personnel were dropped from ANA rolls for a variety of reasons, including deaths.
American military leaders were overestimating the strength of the Afghan security forces for much of 2014, SIGAR reported. Even once the erroneous numbers were detected and reported to the U.S. Department of Defense, military leaders failed to inform the government watchdog, the report contends. Campbell told SIGAR that the discrepancy was due to an "accounting error."
At the end of last year, the NATO-led coalition declared an end to its combat mission in Afghanistan, leaving the foreign-trained and equipped government forces to face off with a stubborn insurgency. Afghan forces have been taking heavy losses -- at least 1,300 soldiers were killed in action and another 6,200 were injured between October 2013 and September 2014, according to U.S. military officials. Police forces are estimated to have sustained even higher casualty rates.
The total number of troops dropped by 8.5 percent, from 184,839 in February 2014 to 169,203 personnel in November of that year, SIGAR investigators wrote in a revised report released on Tuesday.
Besides the army, SIGAR says its analysis indicates that the reported number of national police is likely inaccurate. The total number of ANSF, which includes police and soldiers, was 325,642 at the end of 2014, more than 34,000 below the stated goal, according to SIGAR.
"The U.S. military's inconsistent reporting on ANSF strength numbers indicates long-standing and ongoing problems with accountability and personnel tracking," the report said. "Given that accurate reporting on ANSF strength is an important factor in judging Afghanistan's ability to maintain security and in determining the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from the country, and that the United States is paying to train, equip, and sustain the Afghan troops based on these numbers, these inconsistencies are deeply troubling."
The discrepancies in ANSF figures were caused by double counting the number of civilians working for the Afghan army, a problem that should become less common as automated systems are adopted, said Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.
The latest numbers were released after a spat between SIGAR and the U.S. military mission in Kabul over what information could be released. For the first time in six years, large amounts of data on ANSF capabilities were classified. After SIGAR complaints sparked media attention, Campbell's office decided to release most, but not all, of that data.
Dawlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, defended ANA recruitment and disputed any suggestion that the army is struggling to replace its losses.
"Our recruitment is going normally and we do not have any problem with that," he told Stars and Stripes. He refused to provide recruitment statistics for last year, but gave examples of specialized training courses and officers' academies that have received thousands of applicants for just a few posts.
Without compulsory service, it is natural that some troops decide to leave, Waziri argued. "The Afghan National Army is a volunteer army and if some of them quit after a year or two, no one can force them to stay."
Tribus acknowledged that desertion is a problem and that the most commonly cited reasons for soldiers and police leaving without authorization were disagreements with leadership over issues like leave, and poor quality of life. The losses were compounded by the fact that army officials did not set recruiting goals in 2014 that would have made up for the losses, he said.
"Over the course of 2014, the ANA did not set recruiting goals at levels sufficient to outpace attrition rates -- which resulted in a decline in ANA end strength," he said in an email statement. "[Coalition] advisers, noting the decline, started to work with the ANA to raise their awareness of the falling strength. Since (November 2014), ANA strength has steadily started to increase."
None of the $25 million authorized for programs to recruit and support women in ANSF had been spent, SIGAR reported. The 860 women who serve in the Afghan army and air force represent less than half a percent of the total force.
SIGAR reported that as of December 2014 there were just under 300 American personnel advising the Defense and Interior ministries in Kabul. According to the coalition's own assessment, the ANSF will need "ministerial development, logistics, professionalization, and acquisition-management support through 2017."
-- Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.