Afghanistan’s military and police forces’ strength numbers have fallen to the lowest level they’ve been since 2015, when NATO’s Resolute Support mission began, a U.S. report said Thursday.
The sharp drop in strength numbers may be linked the new way of tallying staffing data, under which only security personnel who have been biometrically validated in a new pay system are included in strength figures, the report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said. Staffing levels were previously self-reported by the security forces.
The new Afghan Personnel and Pay System showed that the country’s army and air force had 9,554 fewer personnel and the Afghan police nearly 25,000 fewer than reported to SIGAR last quarter.
The APPS was designed to prevent officials from pocketing the salaries of nonexistent soldiers and police, the report said. An ongoing SIGAR investigation into the payment of so-called “ghost” police found that in some cases, former police officers were still being paid, “even if they have resigned, been terminated, or killed,” according to the report.
The Pentagon expects the new pay system will help to protect U.S. funds, the report says. The U.S. pays the costs for Afghan security forces’ personnel, with the exception of the base salaries of police, which are covered by a U.N.-managed, multilateral fund.
The U.S. Congress has appropriated nearly $82.67 billion to support security in Afghanistan, or nearly two-thirds of all U.S. reconstruction funding for the country since fiscal year 2002.
The international community has agreed to fund 352,000 security personnel, but only 272,465 soldiers and police were reported to be on the books as of late May, a strength shortfall of around 20 percent, SIGAR said.
Afghan forces’ strength has declined for four consecutive quarters, sinking to a record low since NATO’s Resolute Support mission began, it said. The mission, focused on training and advising Afghans, replaced international combat operations in 2015.
The understaffing of Afghanistan’s security forces comes as violence in the country is rising, even as the U.S. and Taliban are engaged in a series of peace talks, the report says.
“Violence typically spikes around these talks when the parties seek to increase their negotiating leverage,” the report cited the Defense Department as saying.
NATO reported 6,445 enemy-initiated attacks throughout the reporting period, which covered the period from March through May. That number marked a 9-percent increase from the preceding three months but was down 10 percent from the same period last year. More than half of the attacks occurred in just five of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces: Helmand, Badghis, Faryab, Herat, and Farah, the report said.
Afghan security forces, meanwhile, “increasingly targeted the Taliban with military pressure throughout the winter and into the spring to convince the Taliban that they cannot achieve their objectives by prolonging the conflict, and to set the conditions for a negotiated settlement,” the report said.
Of the most recent attacks, 43 percent resulted in casualties among pro-government forces, including the U.S. military, or civilians, according to the report.
“The human toll of the conflict continues to concern the international community as well as the Afghan government,” the report said.
Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in June that at least 50 people die every day in Afghanistan “in the fight against terrorism,” the report said.
While the number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan has fallen significantly during the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2018, with 1,366 civilians killed and nearly 2,500 wounded, the toll was still “shocking and unacceptable,” the United Nations said Tuesday.