The “Ghost Soldier” Question in Afghanistan

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In early 2017, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an expansive report1.SIGAR 2017 High-Risk Report [PDF] outlining risks and challenges facing US reconstruction efforts in the constantly beleaguered Central Asian country. One consistently raised issue in this context has been the deep-rooted corruption within the Afghan government and the Afghan National Army (ANA). The problem of so-called “ghost soldiers”, in particular, has hampered peacebuilding efforts for years. Some potential steps towards solving the quandary of these “ghost soldiers” can be found in studying Iraqi approaches to the same problem, which has plagued the Iraqi military in recent years.

A “ghost soldier” is defined as a member of the military who is present on payroll lists and official documentation, but does not actually serve in the ranks.2.‘Ghost’ soldiers haunt Iraqi army : Al-Monitor They work in name only, convinced to stay home by a commanding officer or administrator in order to generate illicit profit for whoever receives the salary doled out to the ghost soldier’s name.

One of the most prominent issues raised in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul was that of the “ghost soldiers”, an issue that had been ignored by the Iraqi administration for years.3.Special report – How Mosul fell: An Iraqi general disputes Baghdad’s story : Reuters Iraq began seriously confronting its own ghost soldier problem in the summer of 2014, after losing the major city of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Mosul was reportedly garrisoned by over 50,000 regular soldiers together with Iraqi Federal Police units, yet this seemingly mighty force melted away like snow in the face of fewer than 2,000 ISIL operatives, during a week of clashes. 

The issue of “ghost” personnel in Iraq can be traced back to the destruction and reconstruction of the Iraqi military in 2003, though some claim4.‘Ghost’ soldiers haunt Iraqi army : Al-Monitor that the issue plagued the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein as well. Throughout the period of the Maliki administration, officers and politicians consistently encouraged military and police personnel on their payroll to stay at home, paying them a portion of their salary to abstain from work, and pocketing the rest for personal gain. Military officers were also caught selling government-provided munitions and weapons for a profit, which caused units across Iraq to be undersupplied in the years leading up to the fall of Mosul.5.Graft Hobbles Iraq’s Military in Fighting ISIS : NYTimes

In Afghanistan, the problem manifested itself in the same way. Corruption and “ghost soldiers” have been persistent issues in the Aghan National Army (ANA) since 2001, when the Coalition evicted the Taliban from power and established a new interim government.6.U.S. Military Moves to Clear ‘Ghost Soldiers’ From Afghan Payroll : WSJ In their 2017 report, SIGAR found that some of the primary challenges which have complicated the struggle against corruption were lack of data collection, verification, and an absence of methods to track flows of funds from government offices to registered military personnel.7.SIGAR 2017 High-Risk Report

According to the report, removing “ghost soldiers” from ANA ranks is made more difficult by a lack of registries listing military personnel, as well as poor documentation of salary payments.8.SIGAR 2017 High-Risk Report, p. 17 The problem is further aggravated by the Afghan Ministry of Interior’s “trusted-agent” system, in which salaries for military and police personnel are passed down in cash through “trusted” members of military administration. The vetting system for these trusted agents is riddled with vagaries, and bereft of methods to ensure accountability. It is estimated that corrupt agents within this system may pocket as much as fifty percent of any given soldier’s salary.9.SIGAR 2017 High-Risk Report, p. 17 It’s not a problem exclusive to the military and security sectors, either; John Sopko, Special Inspector General himself, admits that civil society suffers similar shortcomings. “It’s not just salaries,” Sopko said in an interview in April 2017. “We’re funding schools based on the number of students, so if you invent or inflate the number, we’re going to be paying more money.”10.“The Pentagon has a ghost soldiers problem” : TDS Military and security logistics, too, are affected. Sopko reports that Afghan security commanders are often found inflating the numbers for required supplies, which means they receive additional funds to buy equipment and weapons that they do not need.11.“The Pentagon has a ghost soldiers problem” : TDS

With these details in mind, how can the ANA and the Afghan government tackle the issues of ghost soldiers and corruption effectively? Much can be learned from steps the Iraqi government took to combat its own corruption following the Mosul disaster: Baghdad immediately launched investigations into military officials long suspected of corruption, and began examining military documents to unearth shortcomings and expose “ghost soldiers” in each brigade.12.Iraq says it found 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’ on payroll : Reuters Throughout the first half of 2015, the government continued to combat the “ghost soldier” problem by establishing special committees staffed by vetted individuals.13.Iraqi Prime Ministry Office Baghdad also implemented electronic tracking systems within the Ministry of Defense to establish a new registry of military personnel.14.Iraqi Prime Ministry Office Though the long-term effects of these changes has yet to be observed, the removal of approximately 50,000 ghost soldiers in 2015 speaks to the short-term efficacy of Baghdad’s reforms.15.Iraq says it found 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’ on payroll : Reuters

The Iraqi army’s measures taken against corruption are a lesson that Afghan officials would be wise to learn from, since as long as the “ghost soldier” problem persists, it will continue to stymie efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at

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