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Ghost soldiers emblematic of a problem that has plagued Afghanistan's security for decades — corruption

The situation in Afghanistan is grim and Afghan forces appear to lack the capacity and organisation to fend off the Taliban
kash Sriram
Last Updated : 13 August 2021, 08:57 IST
Last Updated : 13 August 2021, 08:57 IST
Last Updated : 13 August 2021, 08:57 IST
Last Updated : 13 August 2021, 08:57 IST

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Western coalition forces have not fully withdrawn from Afghanistan yet, but the majority of the country including the second and third largest cities of Kandahar and Herat are under Taliban control.

There are many reasons for the speed with which the Taliban have taken over provinces and cities across the country (at least 2 provincial capitals per day). One of the many factors is the presence of ghost soldiers. Ghost soldiers are those that are listed on paper as part of the forces but don’t exist in real life. The US’s Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has expressed concern over corruption leading to the presence of ghost soldiers and police personnel.

The total authorised strength of the ANDSF is 350,000, which includes police and paramilitary forces. Military operations analyst Jonathan Schorden wrote that the total number of combat personnel are likely to be around 180,000 of which 96,000 form the on-hand army fighting force. Several estimates peg the number of core Taliban fighters at 60,000 and total manpower of over 200,000.

In a quarterly report from July 30, 2020, SIGAR quoted an Afghan government assessment that in Kandahar, Zabul, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, 50% to 70% of police posts are filled by ghost personnel. The lack of accurate figures further raises questions over the strength of the Afghan forces.

“SIGAR has expressed serious concerns about the corrosive effects of corruption within the ANDSF (including the existence of ghost soldiers and police); the questionable accuracy of data on the actual strength of the force; the inability of assessment methodologies to account for the influence on combat readiness of intangible factors such as the will to fight,” the latest quarterly report to Congress from July 30, 2021, said. However, this is not the first SIGAR report to have mentioned the concept of ghost personnel. Several reports in the past have explained the concept and the corruption behind it.

The US is concerned because, over the years, over $88 billion dollars have been appropriated to support Afghanistan’s security sector. A significant portion of this US taxpayer money goes towards paying the salaries of policemen, soldiers and civil servants. The US’s Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) in the past has developed a system to check corruption, however, the efficacy of such checks is yet to be determined.

However, it is important to note that corruption is not the only reason for the Taliban’s rapid onslaught. “While ghost soldiers and corruption within Afghanistan's bureaucracy and military have certainly diminished the actual capability the ANDSF has had, it is not the primary reason why we see a collapse of the Afghan defence infrastructure. There is no single reason why this has happened, however, the rapid US withdrawal, specifically in airpower, has highlighted the hollowness of some of the institution-building done over the past years, and this includes the military,” Kabir Taneja of Observer Research Foundation tells DH.

Taneja adds that he believes corruption is not the reason behind the dire situation. He says, “It is one of the reasons, however, the US withdrawal may demolish the morale of some in ANDSF, but it makes little sense considering the pace at which Taliban has managed to take cities and provinces.”

He adds that in many cases, the ANDSF has either abandoned territory or cut deals with the Taliban for safe passage. “In other cases, ANDSF has held strong in the battlefield and pushed back. So there is little linearity to how the ANDSF is fighting right now, which is perhaps why the Afghan Army Chief was replaced overnight this week by President Ghani. However that may be too little too late now,” Taneja says.

The situation in Afghanistan is grim and Afghan forces appear to lack the capacity and organisation to fend off the Taliban. This is evidenced by how quickly the Taliban has been able to capture major cities and provinces like Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Herat and Ghazni. Though corruption and ghost soldiers are major issues plaguing the military, they are not the only causes for Afghan forces’ failure to secure these crucial geographies.

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Published 13 August 2021, 08:57 IST

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