Afghan Desertions in the U.S.: Assessing the Desertion and "Ghost Soldier" Problem in Afghan National Security Forces

By Anthony H. Cordesman

It is all too easy to forget that the success or failure of the war in Afghanistan ultimately depends on the real-world combat capability of the Afghan fighting soldier. U.S. airpower, Special Forces, fire support, and use of CIA operatives can all help; but "train and assist" means exactly what it says. Just as was the case in Korea—a win—and Vietnam—a loss, it is the native soldier that ultimately counts.

Defections are at Most a Side Show

It is a bit odd, however, that it should take defections in the U.S. to get the kind of attention that reporting on the entire force by the Office and the Secretary of Defense and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has gotten only to a far smaller degree. The scale of the defections of Afghan military training in the U.S. reported in early October is only impressive in terms of the percentage of the exceedingly small force involved:

A SIGAR report indicated that the Afghan military that have chosen to stay in the U.S. included nearly half of the 320 foreign military and police personnel who have deserted from military training and facilities in the U.S. since 2005. This was a total of 152 Afghans: 70 went to other countries, 39 obtained legal status like asylum, 27 are awaiting some form of deportation, and 13 have an unknown status.

Press reports also indicate that this was only 152 out of over 2,500 Afghans between 2005 and 2017. It is still a warning sign in one way since a far smaller percentage of military personnel that come to the U.S. for training from other countries defect, and because the percentage of Afghan trainees who went AWOL (absent without leave) rose from a previous average of about 6 or 7 percent to 13 percent in 2016.

SIGAR interviews also show that such defections in the U.S. reflected the impact of a rising casualty rate, discouragement with Afghan leadership and its high levels of corruption at every level, and the impact of having weapon and supply problems—but these problems affect all Afghan troops. Afghan defectors are unlikely to be frank about a much more obvious and more selfish motive: The U.S. is where incomes are far higher and there are far more opportunities.

The Impact on Military Manning of Losing the Civil Side of the War

Far too much of the literature on Afghanistan understates and fails to address the contradictory mix of motives that shape recruiting and retention in the entre mix of Afghan forces. On the one hand, Afghanistan has one of the worst and most corrupt political structures and governments in the world.

The Impact of Failed Politics and Governance

Afghanistan has critical political and corruption problems in its deep divided central government and every echelon of its security structure. It has serious problems in much of its provincial and district government, problems with warlords and power brokers, and a steadily increasing dependence on a narco-economy. Much of the political and policy literature on these aspects of Afghanistan tends to focus on future reform plans and good intentions regardless of how many times they have failed in the past. The World Bank trend indicators shown in Figure One, however, provide a grim warning of capability in the present.

Afghanistan lacks coherent political leadership, and the World Bank governance indicators rank it as one of the worst governed and most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International ranks it as the seventh most corrupt country in the world, and the UN ranks it as having one of the lowest human development rankings.

Figure One: World Bank Governance Indicators:

Afghanistan is Staying Near the Bottom

Source: World Bank:

The problems not only affect the morale, motivation, and leadership of Afghan defectors in the United States, they have a major impact on every soldier, policeman, and local policeman in Afghanistan.

The Impact of A Crisis in Economics, Jobs, and Civil Security

At the same time, the other side of the story is the mix of pressures that can force men into the security services regardless of their loyalty until the real-world strains of combat, corruption, casualties, and being deployed far from home leads them to desert or leave. Afghanistan has become the equivalent of an economic nightmare for all too many of its citizens.

Much of the modern and better paid service sector in the Afghan economy collapsed with the departure of U.S. and other foreign troops in 2012-2014. Aside from military defectors, this led to a major "brain drain" among more skilled Afghans. All too many of the better educated and more skilled Afghans—and those with relatives overseas or that had any other opportunity to leave—chose to vote with their feet.

More broadly, overall economic growth dropped sharply, and these problems were compounded by chronic mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and the growth of the narcotics industry. The World Bank seems broadly correct in estimating in October 2017 that the poverty rate has been increasing since 2008, reaching an overall average of 39.1% and an average of 46% in rural areas in 2013-2014, and has risen steadily ever since. It estimates that Afghanistan has a GDP per capita today of only $590, ranking Afghanistan as 207th in the entire world. Similarly, the IMF put the Afghan national poverty rate as high as 36% as early as 2011—long before most outside aid efforts and military contracting expenditures were largely eliminated as foreign combat troops withdrew.

Population Pressure and a "Youth Bulge" as a Substitute for a Draft

These problems interacted with intense population pressure that greatly exceeded job creation, movement of displaced citizens into urban areas, and ongoing Iranian and Pakistan expulsion of what may be close to a million Afghans. Afghanistan may have long been a country at war, but the International Data Base of the U.S. Census Bureau still seems all too correct in estimating that its population was only about 8.2 million in 1950. Sharp reductions in infant and child mortality then helped it rise to 15 million by the time of the Russian invasion. The fighting that began in 1979 did lead to a dip to 13.6 million by 1990, at the time the Russians left, but civil turmoil did not stop the population from rising to 19.4 million in 1990, 22.5 million in 2000, and 34.1 million in 2017—4.2 times what it was in 1950.

The current birthrate is still extremely high, and the total population is estimated to reach 41.1 million in 2025 and 67.8 million in 2050. This has led to an extraordinary "youth bulge," and pressure to find new jobs and any openings in government and the military. Nearly 12% of the current population is 15-19 years of age and nearing employment age, and 41% more is 0-14 years of age. (The respective percentages for the U.S. are 6.5% and 13.3%)

A World Bank study entitled Fragility and Population Movement in Afghanistan (issued October 3, 2016), notes that:

...a young and growing population poses tremendous challenges to its public finances, already stretched by limited revenues potential and massive security spending needs . Fiscal analysis shows that, with the current population growth, Afghanistan will need to increase human capital investments by 12 percent every year just to maintain current (inadequate) education outcomes. Similarly, a growing labor force requires the labor market to absorb approximately 400 thousand new entrants per year. Labor demand strong enough to be able to accommodate this many workers requires sustained economic growth, which, at the moment, is beyond the country’s capacity given its fragility and security constraints.

The World Bank estimates that Afghan population growth is so high that some 400,000 more people out of a total population of 33.4 million tried to enter the labor market in 2016. The IMF put the national direct unemployment rate at 23% in 2015. The CIA only shows direct unemployment data at a far better time in 2008—but it still puts the direct figure at 35%. Moreover, the CIA estimates that the percentage of those too young to work is combined with the percentage of elderly that no longer works, the resulting portion of dependents—or dependency ratio—made up 89% of the entire population in 2016.

These nationwide rates mean the unemployment rate for young military-age males could easily be 30-40%—particularly if the displaced/refugees and disguised unemployed (those that are paid, but do not really need to be hired and have no added productive output) are counted in a tribally and family-oriented society.

The end result is something approaching the economic equivalent of conscription or the "draft." Afghanistan's economic and job problems affect the behavior and motivation of every Afghan seeking a job or income, and every Afghan serving in the security forces—not just the military elite that qualifies for training in the U.S. Afghan poverty combines with high unemployment and one of the worst "youth bulges" and highest rates of need for new jobs in the world. It often provides the only source of income for marriage and to support a family. The end result pushes men—especially young and inexperienced men—into the military out of sheer economic survival and often without regard for patriotism or the nature of the cause.

The Broader Issue: Ghost Soldiers, Morale, Desertion, and Fatigue

The end result is a critical set of contradictions between failed leadership, politics, and governance all too similar to Vietnam, and one that impacts on the entire Afghan force. The difference is that defectors in the U.S. have the potential to choose both safety and income. Afghans in the security forces have to choose over time between income and safety, and the problems in governance, corruption, and jobs that have to affect the morale and motivation of every member of the Afghan security forces that stay in Afghanistan.

It is Losses of Personnel in Afghanistan that Really Count

Accordingly, when it comes to the manning that really counts, a total of 152 defectors in the U.S. scarcely matters. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were supposed to have a total authorized uniformed strength of some 350,000 personnel according to the SIGAR Quarterly Report to the United States Congress for July 30, 2017. These personnel totals are shown in Figure Two, and they are a force that cost the U.S. some $73.5 billion to train and equip as of that date—some $68.27 billions of which had been appropriated.

It is also hardly surprising, given the contradictory forces involved, that these totals have only been maintained through a constant massive recruiting and training effort to compensate for attrition and desertions in Afghanistan. Or, that the totals for the Afghan National Army (ANA)—the fighting part of the force—were still marginally lower in mid-2017 than in 2014 in spite of the critical lack of other job and economic opportunities

Figure Two: The Personnel Trends in the Afghan National Security Forces

Unfortunately, Figure Two can only hint at the scale of the problems in terms of attrition and desertions, and cycles of dependence on inexperienced or weakly trained new recruits. There is no reliable reporting on how many Afghan soldiers, police, and local police have actually been recruited, actually stayed, have left or deserted during a given period, and are now combat capable.

Hopefully, a combination of pressures from the U.S. and NATO will eventually force the Afghan forces to make their personnel totals fully accountable—as well as the real-world patterns in and causes of attrition. Hopefully, these pressures will force the ANSF to only pay the forces that are actually there and reduce the causes of desertion and absence. But, it is far from clear when such data will be available or such efforts will succeed.

Afghan Governance and Corruption as a Threat to the ANSF

What is clear is that the civil pressures that have pushed Afghan young men into volunteering have been offset by rising casualties, and by continuing corruption and failures in leadership, that have had a major impact on the entire Afghan recruiting and retention base. The Afghan casualty rate has risen to levels where the Afghan government no longer seems willing to report casualty data and trends with accuracy and in detail. Still, the SIGAR Quarterly Report for July 30, 2017 notes that,

According to figures provided by the Afghan government to USFOR-A, from January 1, 2017, through May 8, 2017, there were 2,531 ANDSF service members killed in action and an additional 4,238 wounded in action. These figures are consistent with ANDSF casualty figures provided for the same period as last year. However, USFOR-A noted that it cannot confirm the accuracy of these figures. According to DOD, since the ANDSF took over operational control in January 2015 ANDSF casualties have “steadily increased,” with forces conducting local patrols and checkpoint operations being especially vulnerable.

U.S. military and SIGAR reporting also do make it clear that desertions and absences are compounded by corrupt practices that have kept far more non-existent soldiers on the Afghan payrolls than were actually serving. Senior U.S. military officers, such as Major General Richard Kaiser, reported in January 2017 that it had forced the removal of more than 30,000 such "ghost soldiers”—evidently most such ghosts were reported by the Army, which could have made them up to 17% of a force then reported to be some 177,000 personnel.

SIGAR reported on April 30, 2017 that, “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist, how many are in fact available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.” It has since sounded more warnings about "ghost soldiers," attrition, exhausting or burning out the best troops, and having to constantly recruit to fill in missing places. The SIGAR Quarterly Report for July 30, 2017 noted that,

CSTC-A is overseeing this process to ensure interoperability so that biometrically linked ID cards can be issued to all ANDSF personnel and that APPS can generate payroll information and bank-account information for accounted-for personnel. According to CSTC-A, this structure will reduce the potential for nonexistent personnel to be entered into APPS, although it will not completely eliminate the risk of paying for ghost personnel. Routine checks will still be required to determine that personnel are properly accounted for and are still actively serving in the ANDSF... The biometric cards will also, once implemented, be used to access all human resources information for personnel, including identity, pay and APPS data, promotions, assignments, killed/wounded/absent-without-leave information, and other documents....

... As a result of increased attention in early 2017 to the possible existence of many ghost personnel within the ANDSF rolls, U.S. officials confirmed that as of January 1, 2017, ANDSF salaries will be paid only to those MOD and MOI personnel who are correctly registered in AHRIMS... SIGAR requested more detailed information this quarter from U.S. officials in order to clarify the current situation involving ghost personnel and what actions have been taken by the U.S. and Afghan governments to address the issue.

USFOR-A reported that its Afghan partners are “very serious about resolving this issue,” and as of May 11, 2017, the MOD had properly enrolled and accounted for 153,398 personnel in AHRIMS, roughly 88% of the ANA, AAF, Special Mission Wing, MOD General Staff, and other MOD elements. However, they also identified 12,073 personnel, about 7% of total MOD personnel, who are “unaccounted for,” some of whom could be ghosts. The remaining 5% of personnel were trainees and students.... USFOR-A emphasized that “a thorough and deliberate process to validate all Afghan soldiers and police is ongoing and is expected to last through late summer 2017.”

In vetting comments, USFOR-A assessed that a significant number of reported ghost personnel are better categorized as unaccounted-for personnel because often these personnel are present for duty, but have not completed proper enrollment into AHRIMS and are therefore unverified in the system. USFOR-A noted that efforts to increase enrollment in AHRIMS prior to the introduction of APPS, completion of PAIs, and continued enforcement by CSTC-A will help resolve this problem and better identify the number of ghost personnel.208

According to USFOR-A’s data, the distribution of unaccounted-for personnel is relatively even, with the exception of the ANA’s 215th Corps in Helmand, which has the lowest number of unverified personnel, almost half as many as other ANA combat corps... This is perhaps surprising given that the 215th Corps is a “main effort” corps, meaning that it bears a heavy burden in battling the Afghan insurgency, and has in the past been plagued by issues of corruption and lack of transparency...The corps with the most unaccounted-for personnel are: the 201st Corps, covering Kapisa, Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar, and Nuristan Provinces, at 8.7% of their reported strength, and the 207th Corps, covering Badghis, Farah, Ghor, and Herat Provinces, at 11.2% of their reported strength. Notably, the ANA’s Medical Command has not accounted for 22.5% of its reported personnel... USFOR-A added that there is currently no zone-level breakdown of unaccounted- for personnel for the ANP...

Ghosts Really Don't Exist

Similarly, the June 2017 1225 report by the Department of Defense on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan provided general warnings about the problem, although it omitted to describe the limits to the accuracy of its data on absences, and did not provide warnings about corruption and profiteering off of "ghost soldiers":

Attrition levels vary widely among the different corps and zones. Aggregate attrition within the ANDSF during this reporting period averaged 2.31 percent, consistent with the three-year historical average of 2.20 percent. The ANA averaged 2.54 percent attrition, as compared to the three-year historical average of 2.50 percent. ANP attrition averaged 2.11 percent, consistent with the three-year historical average of 1.99 percent.

During the reporting period, overall ANDSF recruitment kept pace with losses, resulting in a relatively constant end-strength over the past year. However, maintaining overall end-strength is a misleading metric. Although recruiting has generally kept pace with attrition, retention has not. As attrition levels remain high, the ANDSF becomes younger and less experienced as new personnel replace those with combat experience.

Although separations, retirements, and casualties contribute to overall attrition, the number of ANDSF personnel dropped from the rolls dominates ANDSF attrition, representing more than 70 percent of all personnel losses. ANA soldiers and ANP police dropped from the rolls rarely return to duty, which increases the recruitment effort required to maintain the overall force size. Consistent with previous reporting periods, the ANA continues to have a higher rate of soldiers dropped from the rolls than the ANP.

Several factors are known to contribute to the high number of ANDSF personnel dropped from rolls, including poor leadership and leader accountability, lack of casualty and martyr care, poor implementation and understanding of leave policies, lack of timely and accurate pay, and inadequate living and working conditions.

In addition, soldiers in units in high-threat areas are often not granted leave due to operational requirements and receive only limited rest and training between deployments due to the absence of an ORC. Attrition remains a larger problem for the ANA than for the ANP, in part because ANA personnel management policies do not allow soldiers to serve in their home areas in order to decrease the potential for local influence. However, these policies have the second-order effect of increasing transportation costs and creating additional obstacles for soldiers attempting to take authorized leave, which contributes to the problem of soldiers dropped from rolls.

ANA and ANP both have policies to prevent personnel from going absent without leave, although enforcement is inconsistent. Coalition advisory efforts continue to focus on the ANDSF’s ability to regenerate forces through recruitment and operational readiness programs. Despite these challenges, the size of the ANDSF has remained relatively stable over the past year, although it is several thousand personnel below the authorized level of 352,000 personnel.

Reshaping the U.S. and Allied Train and Assist Mission: Implement the Current Train and Assist Plan, But Address the Civil Dimension as Well

This awkward mix of the wrong incentives to join the ANSF, and the wrong conditions to persuade those who serve to stay have ominous historical precedents. There are all too many previous cases where military forces ignored both the need to deal with the range of outside factors that could defeat what appeared to be a superior army. The U.S. government chose to downplay a critical growth in the desertion rate, lack of morale, and deteriorating civil considerations in South Vietnam, and then failed to provide aid when it was most needed. The Chinese Nationalist Army became a corrupt, inadequate mess that could not deal with Communist Chinese forces after the end of World War II. The corruption and failures of the Batista regime played a critical factor in defeating its own army as it tried to counter Castro.

These risks are compounded in the case of the ASNSF. The rush to substitute half-formed elements of Afghan forces for outside forces in 2012-2014 result in Afghan forces that were never properly prepared to fight a long war of attrition, and constraints on U.S. and other train and assist personnel and outside forces that ensure high casualties, losses, and low morale. The numbers of actual soldiers were also comparatively small relative to the populated areas that had to be defended, and the police had only limited a paramilitary capability.

Even if Afghan forces had been fully manned and motivated, they would have faced a serious challenge from an enemy that could strike from a sanctuary, chose its moments of attack, and then attack knowing the weakest links in the opposing Afghan forces with almost perfect transparency as to their local strengths and weaknesses.

Fully Implementing the New U.S. Military Plan and Strategy in Afghanistan

At a military level, there is an immediate need to fully implement the full-scale train and assist mission that Secretary Mattis, General Dunford, and General Nicholson have recommended. A hollow force cannot win a war of attrition, and the tactical successes in Iraq and Syria has shown just how much the right combination of U.S. and allied air power, fully staffed, and forward deployed train and assist, combat fire support, and limited special forces efforts can accomplish.

Given this background, the key priority will also be to focus on the entire Afghan force structure, and not a sideshow like Afghan defections in the U.S. It also seems likely that the economic pressures that push men into the Afghan security forces will remain so serious that that comparatively limited reforms and measures to strengthen the ANSF can deal with the "ghost soldier" and attrition problem at the national level.

Afghans in Afghanistan have limited choices, and stabilizing the ANSF requires far less effort than dealing effectively with the overall problems in politics, governance, and economics. Many of the problems in the retention of existing personnel, and improving motivation, can probably be solved by cleaning up the personnel system, and providing a full mix of "train and assist" advisors and specialized combat personnel that will help improve leadership and the functional integrity of the forces down to the combat unit level.

Linked to effective reforms in the Afghan personnel system to eliminate fraud and "ghost soldiers," and reduce internal corruption over promotion and pay to acceptable levels, they seem likely to have a significant impact. Providing more airpower, new forms of fire support, added support to elite Afghan forces, and more police training can all help increase morale by limiting casualties and offering more actual victories.

It will Still Fail with Reform of Governance, Improvements in the Economy, and Less Corruption

At the same time, it is equally important to understand that armies do not survive failed political leadership and governance at the civil level. A government must be able to motivate both its forces and its people with effective governance, an honest enough government to win public and military support, and the kind of economic effort and mix of civil services that builds popular trust and support.

The previous figures show that Afghan political, governance, and economic reform is necessary. Today, it is far more rhetoric than substance when it comes to the kind of actual achievement that can win support at the civil level. And, major improvement in the civil side of the Afghan conflict is critical to military success. It is the morale and motivation of the forces in Afghanistan that count. Unlike the handful of defectors, most Afghans cannot leave. As past wars show all too clearly, having to stay in the country does not mean that Afghan soldiers will stay in the fight or that the government will have the broad support it needs to survive.

Additional Studies of Afghan Conflict