This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
Since the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, a signature goal of the war has been to increase the size of Afghan national security forces and give their members the skills to vanquish domestic terrorist groups and other security threats on their own.
But as the Obama administration prepares to pull 34,000 U.S. troops out of the country by February and most of the remaining troops by the end of 2014, estimates of the size of the Afghan force trained to take over this lead security role have suddenly grown fuzzy and possibly unreliable.
A new report this week by the government's top watchdog over U.S. spending in Afghanistan casts doubt on whether the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government has met a goal set in 2011 of enlisting and training a total of 352,000 Afghan security personnel by October 2012. Pentagon officials have said that target was meant to strike a balance between what is needed and what America and its allies can deliver in concert with the Afghan government.
The White House declared two months ago, in conjunction with the President's State of the Union address, that the goal had been attained. Afghan "forces are currently at a surge strength of 352,000, where they will remain for at least three more years, to allow continued progress toward a secure environment in Afghanistan," it said.
But on Tuesday, Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko challenged this rosy assessment, which White House officials said was based on data supplied by the Pentagon.
"The goal to 'train and field' 352,000 Afghan National Security Forces by last October was not met." Sopko said in his latest quarterly report. Instead, as of Feb. 18, the number of personnel in the Afghan National Army, National Police and Air Force totaled 332,753, or about 20,000 fewer, according to data he said he collected from the Coalition-led transition command in Kabul.
Sopko said Afghan troop and police strength is actually declining, not rising - belying a longstanding goal of the U.S. intervention. There are now 4,700 fewer personnel than a year ago, he noted, drawing on the same data that the Pentagon routinely uses.
The discrepancy between the force size the White House has claimed and what the Afghans have actually been able to field is not a trivial one, Sopko's report suggested. "Accurate and reliable accounting for ANSF personnel is necessary to ensure that U.S. funds that support the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] are used for legitimate and eligible costs," it said.
As a result, the discrepancy has triggered a wider audit by his organization into "the extent to which DOD [the Department of Defense] reviews and validates the information collected" from Afghan officials, Sopko said in the report. It will broadly assess "the reliability and usefulness" of what the Afghans - and the U.S. government - say about the force's size.
In a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, Sopko explained that "we are not implying that anyone is manipulating data. We are raising a concern that we don't have the right numbers. We appreciate how difficult it is to get the correct numbers -- but we need accurate numbers because we're using those numbers to pay ANSF salaries, supply equipment and so forth."
The financial stakes behind the numbers are huge. Sopko's report says Congress has appropriated more than $51 billion so far "to build, equip, train and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces."
But U.S. officials and watchdog groups have previously raised alarms about the existence of "ghost" personnel in the Afghan forces, whose salaries are still funded by Western aid but who quit the units to which they are assigned. The annual attrition rate for the Afghan army is nearly 30 percent, according to U.S. military commanders, provoking an enormous churn in the ranks that complicates accurate record-keeping.
Part of the problem, according to Sopko's report, is that Western officials have allowed "the Afghan forces to report their own personnel strength numbers," which are based on hand-written ledgers in "decentralized, unlinked and inconsistent systems." The Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which oversees the training effort, reported last year "there was no viable method of validating personnel numbers," the report added.
But U.S. officials have added to the confusion by adopting a new definition of what it means to be a member of the Afghan security force, loosening its terminology in a way that enlarges the ranks to include all those "recruited" rather than those actually trained and field-ready.
For example, the Defense Department's so-called Section 1230 reports, which track the progress of the war, including efforts to build an effective Afghan security force, said in April 2012 that "the ANSF are ahead of schedule to achieve the October 2012 end-strength of 352,000, including subordinate goals of 195,000 soldiers and 157,000 police."
But last December's Section 1230 report - the most recent progress report available -- changed the way it referred to the 352,000 figure. "The ANSF met its goal of recruiting a force of approximately 352,000 by October 1, 2012," the December report said. Some of these personnel were awaiting induction at training centers, said the report, adding that the Afghan army's recruits were not scheduled to be "trained, equipped, and fielded until December 2013."
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., who in February took command of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan from Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, used still different terminology during April 16 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the Afghan government "has recruited and fielded most of its authorized strength of 352,000," a circumstance that he said enables it to "be responsible for security nationwide" in the near future.
The Pentagon is still working on its written response to the special inspector general's report. But a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, separately told the Center for Public Integrity that "fluctuation in overall strength of the ANSF due to recruitment and attrition is expected."
Speaks said recruitment targets were lowered last year to slow growth as Afghan forces approached "its force structure ceiling of 352,000. . . . Lower recruitment, coupled with several months of higher-than-average levels of attrition in the ANA [Afghan National Army], resulted in a net decrease."
He said ANSF end-strength rose to 336,365 in March, but added that the focus of the training mission now is on "the quality of the force; developing the right balance of seniority, skills and specialization," more than on the number of trainees.
Sopko's report attributed the decline partly to a decision last October to no longer include civilians in the official security force tally, such as those in the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. But Speaks said Thursday that civilians continue to be counted, calling them "a necessary and integrated part" of the Afghan Army. He said an effort is underway to convert the jobs to the civil service system, and also that the Afghan reporting system "is increasingly moving from a paper-based system to a more automated one with new standards" and processes.
Despite the squishiness of the data, U.S. military officials have repeatedly cited the buildup in Afghan forces as the principal reason for declaring the 11-year war a success. "For the last few years, many people have shied away from using the word 'win,'" Dunford told the senators. "I personally have used that word since arriving in Afghanistan."
Sharing his optimism, Gen. Allen told Brookings Institution in March that Afghan security forces "turned out to be better than we thought, and they turned out better than they thought." During the ceremonial change of command in Kabul in February Allen said, "Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like."
US officials have long considered the ability of Afghan forces to fight without foreign help as critical to the Obama administration's exit strategy and pending decisions on how large of a residual force to leave in the county once most U.S. troops leave next year. There are 70,000 U.S. troops there now, of which 1,800 are assigned to the NATO training mission.
At last year's NATO summit in Chicago, Sopko noted in his report, countries contributing to coalition forces in Afghanistan agreed to set a goal of a 228,500-strong Afghan security force in 2017, which they considered more financially viable than any higher number. But the Obama administration rejected that suggestion and insisted that a force of 352,000 would give the U.S. military more flexibility and could be maintained through 2018.
Whether a force of even that size is enough to meet the West's ambitions remains controversial. On March 22, for example, the Pentagon's inspector general reported that the extensive U.S.-led coalition effort to develop the Afghan National Army's command-and-control capabilities, which are crucial in executing counterinsurgency operations on its own, "had produced a marginally sufficient" system.
The Afghan National Army "did not yet have the ability to plan and conduct sustained operations without U.S. and Coalition support," the DOD IG report said. "To date, the ANA had only been effective in conducting offensive operations of short duration . . . with heavy reliance on U.S. and Coalition support."
The IG's report credited both the Afghan army and police for demonstrating "initiative, coordination and resilience" in responding to insurgent attacks in Kabul on Aril 15, 2012. The actions by security forces "were encouraging and timely," the report said. But it warned that the progress "may be hampered or even reversed. . . if high-risk challenges are not properly addressed and resolved," including the removal of ineffective senior officers, an ability to use complex technology, and "the significant reliance on U.S. and Coalition enablers."
A Government Accountability Office report released in February said further that a claimed improvement in the effectiveness of Afghan security forces has been partly due to the lowering of standards by U.S.-led forces. In August 2011, U.S. military officials changed the highest possible rating for Afghan units from "independent," meaning they could operate without help from U.S. or coalition troops, to "independent with advisors," the GAO said.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the changes to the rating levels "were partly responsible for the increase in ANSF units rated at the highest level," GAO said.