Defense Department officials are hopeful that by the end of this year they'll be paying for salaries of only Afghan soldiers who actually exist.
In testimony before House Armed Services Committee members late last week, Pentagon officials said they hope to have in place in coming months "an integrated pay and personnel system" for Afghanistan security forces that will help U.S. forces better identify and account for thousands of individuals in the ranks.
"That will mitigate opportunities for corruption in the system," said Christine Abizaid, deputy assistant defense secretary for Central Asia. "It has taken a while to develop, given the unique terrain that is Afghanistan. But it is something that we are absolutely focused on, and think is an important aspect of the mission."
That news offered only slight comfort to lawmakers at the hearing, who expressed continued concerns about the issue of "ghost" troops — individuals being paid salaries by U.S. taxpayers but who aren't helping secure that country.
Outside investigations have found that some of the salaries are going to individuals who don't show up to work in remote areas of hard-to-reach provinces. Others have been killed but remain on the books, with supervisors pocketing the extra pay.
Still others exist only on paper to funnel money to local warlords.
Much of the $5 billion annual cost for Afghanistan's security forces comes from the United States, part of the larger U.S. strategy of pushing local forces into the front of the fight.
At Friday's hearing, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told lawmakers the problem stems from the shrinking number of U.S. troops stationed throughout the country while there is an ongoing flow of American funds to the struggling Afghan government.
"(Our forces) now have no option but to rely on the Afghans to report on the number of troops and police in the field, yet audits indicate that record keeping by the Afghans is generally poor or nonexistent," he said. "We continue to see repeated reports of ghost soldiers, ghost police as well as ghost teachers, ghost schools, ghost clinics throughout Afghanistan."
Abizaid said she is hopeful the new personnel systems will solve many of those problems. U.S. officials have planned new biometric identification cards for all Afghan Ministry of Defense and National Army personnel. Plans are to start handing out those new IDs this summer.
But she also acknowledged the issue of ghost troops as "a significant problem" that threatens the long-term viability of the local forces.
Sopko — a frequent critic of U.S. waste in Afghanistan — said accountability and oversight need to be bigger priorities for defense officials.
"The Afghan government simply does not generate enough revenue to sustain their (security forces) or even the rest of their government, now or at any time in the foreseeable future," he said. "At the same time, our work reveals that the accountability for funding is lacking in many areas."
Military officials are expected to offer recommendations to the White House in coming months on whether to start drawing down the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by this fall or maintain that level into the next administration.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.