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Billions of dollars in direct U.S. aid to the Afghan army and police have been poorly tracked, leaving no way to verify if the money was spent as intended, according to a new report from the Pentagon’s internal watchdog.

An Afghan Army soldier picks up his weapon at a training facility in the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2013. The Afghan National Security Forces depend on billions of dollars in funding from the United States and its allies. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

The Department of Defense provided $3.3 billion in such aid between October 2010 and October 2013, yet Afghanistan’s government “lacked basic controls to provide reasonable assurance that it appropriately spent” the money, according to a report released last week by the Pentaton’s assistant inspector general for financial management and reporting, Lorin T. Venable.

Not only that, but the U.S. agency responsible for supporting Afghan’s security forces, known as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, hasn’t penalized the local government for poor oversight or improper handling of the funds, the report complained.

Because of the continuing lack of accountability, $13 billion that the Defense Department plans to provide Afghan security forces between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 “may be subject to wasteful spending and abuse,” it warned.

Already, as much as $1.5 billion in U.S. aid, sent between December 2012 and December 2013, cannot be accounted for because it was commingled with other revenues in government bank accounts, the report said. The Afghan government also spent more than $82 million in Pentagon funds on unapproved items, including Afghan armed forces salaries, overtime, and travel, without any penalty, the report added.

The report also raised new concerns about an old problem in the Pentagon’s Afghan aid program, namely the disbursement of foreign aid funds to apparent “ghost workers.”

Three years ago, the acting Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction first complained that the Afghan Ministry of Interior couldn’t accurately say how many people worked for the national police, and that as a result, there was “limited assurance” that only those on the job were receiving paychecks underwritten by foreign aid.

In February of this year, current Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko reiterated those concerns in a letter to the commanding general and deputy commanding general of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, as well as the deputy commanding general of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

“The U.S. may be unwittingly helping to pay the salaries of non-existent members of the Afghan National Police,” Sopko wrote.

Last week’s inspector general report makes clear that these problems still are not under control. It notes that payments for security forces’ salaries stayed the same in key areas even after many employees left.

For example, the report found that the total payroll for police in one Afghan province was $84,480 for four consecutive months, September through December of 2013, even though 66 police departed during that time. In total, six payments of more than $500,000 were called suspect.

In total, the report said, more than 4,500 payments by the Ministry of Interior, which runs the police, totaling around $40 million, were “potentially improper” because the ministry did not monitor how many employees were leaving and compare that figure to the salary totals.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko enters International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul in August 2012.
 Special IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction/ Flickr

The Ministry of Finance also could not document that $17.4 million withheld from salaries for police and military pensions was used for that purpose, or whether those receiving pensions were ever paid, the report said.

The report also noted that some police employees in remote regions were paid in cash, with individuals from the Ministry of Interior hand-delivering the money. The cash payments were not tracked, and the ministry couldn’t verify whether employees were paid the correct amount, if at all.

Venable’s report made 14 recommendations for reforms, including that the simple solution of requiring that aid money be kept in separate bank accounts from other government money, and that the Ministry of Finance provide bank statements for these accounts so that the aid’s disbursement can be accurately tracked.

The report also said the Ministry of Interior should compare payroll data with up-to-date worker rolls, and withhold future funding to compensate for improper payments. Alternatively, it said, officials should be required to document why the future funding was not withheld.

Major General Kevin Wendel, the commanding general of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, said in a written response to the report on Aug. 14 that he agreed with all of the recommendations.

Wendel said the next agreement between his agency and the Afghan government would require separate bank accounts for the aid; that they would withhold inappropriately spent funds in the future or explain why they weren’t doing so; and that lists of departing employees would be compared with payroll data to ensure there were no unauthorized payments. He added that they were in the process of training employees at the Ministry of Interior to compare that data on their own.

Thirteen years in, a few lessons are evidently being learned.

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