Since 2002, billions of U.S. tax dollars have been spent rebuilding Afghanistan after its decades of war. A big chunk of that money pays Afghan soldiers and police. But it turns out a lot of those troops who were paid, may not, in fact, exist. We investigate how your tax money is being wasted on "ghost soldiers."
John Sopko: We've been raising this concern about ghosts going back a number of years. We first heard about it from Ashraf Ghani years ago, before he became president, he warned me about "ghosts" so we started looking three years ago.
John Sopko is the Inspector General watching over the U.S. taxpayer billions spent to rebuild Afghanistan.
Sharyl: When you say "ghosts," what are you referring to?
John Sopko: What we're talking about are policemen, Afghan policemen, Afghan military, Afghan civil servants who don't exist or they have multiple identity cards and we're paying their salaries. By "we" I mean the United States and the international community. And we started finding out that we had no capacity to measure the number of soldiers, teachers, doctors, military people who we are paying their salaries.
For years, multiple audits have shown there's no way to prove that the money we send for salaries is going to a real live body. And the payroll numbers just don't add up. For example, Sopko says, in June 2016, the supposed number of Afghan military and police was 319,595. But an Afghan official told AP "the best internal estimate" of the real number was "around 120,000."
Sharyl: This implies fraud, obviously.
John Sopko: Oh, absolutely. Major fraud. And what's happening is the commanders or generals or other higher officials are actually pocketing the salaries of the ghosts. And I remember President Ghani again, at that time he wasn't president, saying, "John, you, the United States government are paying the salary of an Afghan who's a teacher, he's a civil servant, he's a doctor, he is a policeman, and he's a soldier. And it's the same Afghan. And he doesn't exist."
Paying for reconstruction in war-ravaged countries is an American tradition. After World War II, there was the Marshall Plan named after Secretary of State George Marshall. The U.S. spent, in today's terms, $103 billion over four years to rebuild 16 European countries. Today, U.S. taxpayers have now far outspent the Marshall Plan on Afghanistan reconstruction: more than $117 billion. $68 billion of that has gone for Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, the country's police and military. Last year, the governor of Helmand, Afghanistan reported discovering at least 400 non-existent "ghost soldiers" on that province's payroll. And Helmand's police chief was also quoted as saying that of 26,000 Afghan National Defense Security Forces assigned there, "40 to 50 percent did not exist physically when we asked for help during operations."
John Sopko: So you're talking about instead of 300-some thousand, it may be only 150-thousand actually exist. Especially in Helmand province, the new provincial governors down there were raising serious concerns that most of the police and soldiers that they needed during the last fighting season weren't there.
In multiple letters and audits, Sopko has taken the Pentagon, which manages the money, to task stating, "Persistent reports raise questions regarding whether the U.S. government is taking adequate steps to prevent taxpayer funds from being spent on so-called 'ghost' soldiers." And he says the ghost phenomenon extends beyond Afghan defense and security paychecks to other forms of aid.
John Sopko: It's not just the salaries. But we're funding schools based upon the number of students, so if you invent or inflate the number of students, you're going to be paying more money. On the soldiers and the police, we're paying for extra boots, for food, for everything else, logistics for numbers that don't exist.
Sharyl: Is there any way to tell who's taking the money?
John Sopko: It's difficult because of the security situation. We in the U.S oversight community can't get out. Even the U.S. military can't get out anymore. So it's very difficult. It's really up to the Afghans or designing systems for the Afghans to implement.
Sharyl: Who would it be that could conceivably help fix this? Or who is responsible for the misspending?
John Sopko: Well, the misspending is obviously the Afghans. They're the ones who are stealing the money. Who we are holding accountable is the U.S. government for not considering this to be an issue when we raised it 3 or 4 years ago, but also not implementing some reforms to ensure that there actually is a soldier on the other end of that pay statement.
The Pentagon is implementing a new system of biometrics in Afghanistan using fingerprints, photos and blood type. It recently said up to 95% percent of Afghan police and 70-80% of soldiers are now enrolled. The idea is to dispense with old ghosts, and ensure proof of life among a faraway force funded by U.S. taxpayers.
Sharyl: What kind of money are we talking about?
John Sopko: Hundreds of millions of dollars, we're talking' about, that may be lost.
The Pentagon has removed thousands of ghost soldiers from the payroll this year.