KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. Defense Department has assured a watchdog agency that a number of efforts are being carried out to track Afghan active-duty security forces, so that American taxpayer dollars are not wasted on so-called ghost soldiers.
In a letter to the Pentagon released Friday -- 15 years to the day since the United States invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban -- the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said it was worried about "significant gaps between the assigned force strength of the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] and the actual number of personnel serving."
SIGAR expressed particular unease about southern Helmand province, where Afghan forces have been struggling to fend off relentless Taliban offensives.
Afghanistan's TOLOnews in June quoted Helmand's incoming police chief as saying that up to half of the roughly 26,000 soldiers and police officers assigned to the province did not exist.
Officially, Afghan security forces -- which include the army and local and national police -- are said to number about 320,000, but The Associated Press reported earlier this year that there were likely fewer than half of that number.
SIGAR said it was concerned that U.S. funds provided to the ANDSF could be pocketed by Afghan commanders under the guise of paying soldiers who have deserted, died or never existed. The watchdog group asked the DoD for an update on measures it previously pledged to implement to account for Afghan personnel.
The DoD said several efforts were underway, including person-by-person verification and biometric registration. It said roughly 90 percent of police and 70-80 percent of soldiers have been biometrically enrolled.
"When the initial inventorying is completed in July 2017, DoD and the Afghan (Defense Ministry) will have a more accurate representation of actual force strength," the Pentagon said.
Efforts at changing the way salaries are paid so that they go directly to employees should also be implemented by next year, DoD said.
The United States has spent $68 billion since 2002 to help support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The NDSF, which has been hampered by demoralization and desertions for years, still struggles on its own to counter the Taliban and other militants.
SIGAR has not yet said whether it believes DoD's efforts are satisfactory.
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