The Afghan military was made up of ‘ghost’ soldiers who didn’t actually exist, and that’s why it collapsed so rapidly: ex-finance minister

An Afghan Commandos stands guard while an Afghan Air Force helicopter flies past during a combat training exercise at the Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in the Afghan province of Helmand
An Afghan commando stands guard while an Afghan Air Force helicopter flies past during a combat training exercise at the Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in the Afghan province of Helmand on August 27, 2017. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images
  • Afghanistan’s ex-finance minister blamed “ghost” soldiers for the US-backed government’s collapse.
  • “Ghost” soldiers were nonexistent troops or personnel manufactured by corrupt officials to pocket their salary.
  • The Taliban easily took over major cities before marching into Kabul in August, often without much of a fight.

Khalid Payenda, Afghanistan’s former finance minister, told BBC News that most of the 300,000 Afghan troops didn’t exist and were in fact “ghost” soldiers made up by corrupt officials who exploited the system for money.

“The way the accountability was done, you would ask the chief in that province how many people you have and based on that you could calculate salaries and ration expenses and they would always be inflated,” Payenda told Ed Butler of the BBC’s Business Daily.

Payenda also said that when soldiers were killed or deserted their commanders would keep their bank cards and withdraw their salaries.

There were also leaders of government-backed militias who were “double-dipping,” Payenda said, or taking government wages while also accepting payments from the Taliban. Combined with the fact that actual troops were not getting paid on time, this contributed heavily to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, he said.

“The whole feeling was, we cannot change this. This is how the parliament works, this is how the governors work. Everybody would say the stream is murky from the very top, meaning the very top is involved in this,” Payenda said, though he added that he didn’t believe former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was “financially corrupt.”

The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August as the US finalized its withdrawal from the country. The militant Islamist group rapidly took over major cities – often without much of a fight. Instead of battling for territory, the Taliban often made deals with local leaders

A month before the Taliban takeover, President Joe Biden had touted the size and capabilities of the Afghan military, which the US government spent $US83 ($AU112) billion training and equipping. Biden in a July 8 press conference said the Afghan military was as “well-equipped as any army in the world.” During the same press conference, Biden said, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

When the Taliban marched into Kabul, the Biden administration was forced to acknowledge that it was caught by surprise by the blistering pace at which the militants seized territory. “It is certainly the case that the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated,” national security advisor Jake Sullivan said in mid-August.

Biden placed much of the blame on the Afghan military, though he’d expressed “trust” in it just weeks before.

The Afghan military was plagued by corruption and discipline issues for years, and the US government was warned about the problem.

Payenda is hardly the first official from Afghanistan or the US to express concerns about “ghost” soldiers.

“When we say we have 100 soldiers on the battlefield, in reality it is just 30 or 40. And this creates the potential for huge catastrophes when the enemy attacks,” Afghan lawmaker Ghulam Hussain Nasiri told the Associated Press in 2016. “It is an indication of massive corruption – the reason Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt nations in the world.”

Another Afghan official said that “no one knows the exact numbers of the Afghan National Defense Forces.”

“Everyone knows that we are facing this fight alongside ‘ghost’ soldiers, and that’s the reason we don’t have enough men,” Afghan soldier Mohammad Islam said to the Associated Press at the time. “The Taliban know it, too. When they attack us, and we’re unable to protect ourselves, the big men then ask why.”

“Neither the US nor its Afghan allies truly know how many Afghan soldiers and police are available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), said to Congress in 2016. The year prior, SIGAR warned that over $US300 ($AU406) million per year was being doled out to nonexistent forces. SIGAR repeatedly pointed to the problems surrounding “ghost” soldiers over the years.

The US made an effort to scrub “ghost” soldiers from its payroll, but issues with the Afghan military persisted.

In its annual threat assessment released in April, the US intelligence community warned that the Taliban “is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

The Biden administration has faced bipartisan criticism over its handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.