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William Astore: America’s Hollow Foreign Legions

An Iraqi soldier’s goggles catch the reflection of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Murphy, left, as he instructs Iraqi soldiers, 2011

You may not believe in the supernatural, but it’s still a certifiable fact.  Your tax dollars are paying for ghosts.

Just ask John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who recently wrote to three U.S. commanders in that country suggesting that the Pentagon might be “unwittingly helping to pay the salaries of non-existent members of the Afghan National Police”  — that is, “ghost” police officers. He came to that conclusion after a recent trip to the country.  For one thing, there were those 54,000 “erroneous personnel ID numbers” in the payroll system for the Afghan security forces.  It’s the sort of thing that might make anyone suspicious.

Filling your ranks with ghost personnel may not result in an effective policing or fighting force.  It ensures, for one thing, that in a moment of need you can’t even know how many people are actually carrying weapons and how many are will-o’-the-wisps.  One thing is certain, however: it’s an absolutely top-notch way for Afghan police and army commanders to line their pockets with dollars.

And by the way, those Afghan ghosts have a history nearly as long as America’s second Afghan War.  In 2007, for instance, the U.S. Government Accountability Office was already reporting that the “actual number of present-for-duty soldiers” in Afghan military units was “about one-half to two-thirds of the total” at any given time.  While some of those were soldiers on leave, significant numbers were clearly ghost troops.  Similarly, in 2009, Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Washington University, estimated in a study that 25% of Afghan police units were, in fact, ghostly presences.

It’s not hard to understand why. From early on, the Afghan army and police forces — set up, funded, equipped, and trained by the Americans and their NATO allies — have hemorrhaged recruits.  Desertion rates have often reached 25%, which means that if an Afghan commander simply fails to report all the troops he’s losing, the money to pay them just keeps coming in — to him.  None of this should surprise anyone, including John Sopko, since reports on the inability of the Pentagon (and the U.S. government) to accurately track where their funds were going in Afghanistan, what they really paid for, and how they were actually used have been a commonplace in these years.

You could say that such ghosts have been subsisting on American tax dollars for more than four decades.  After all, “ghost soldiers” were a commonplace in South Vietnamese units in America’s long war in that country; and as we now know from the fall in June of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Iraqi military units, which disintegrated at the approach of the militants of the Islamic State, were similarly filled with such specters.

The question is: Why do the armies that the U.S. has formed, armed, and trained in lands where we’re at war and on which endless billions of dollars have been lavished always appear so ghostly and, in the end, fight so much less effectively than the forces opposing them?  As retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore suggests, if you foster kleptocratic governments, you shouldn’t be shocked when their armed forces prove to be filled with grifters, skimmers, and con artists. Tom

Investing in Junk Armies
Why American Efforts to Create Foreign Armies Fail
By William J. Astore

In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably. 

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