- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Afghan National Army is shrinking at the very time it is being called on to conduct all combat operations as American troops head toward a complete exit by 2017, a new audit shows.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said on Tuesday that the ANA has declined by 8.5 percent, or 15,636 soldiers, in the past 12 months alone. It is down to 169,203 personnel, the lowest level since August 2011.

What’s more, the IG’s report strongly implies that the U.S. command in Kabul tried to cover up the bad numbers.

The IG report said that just a week after it submitted a classified report to Congress on troops strength, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the top U.S. commander, informed the IG that the command “had reversed itself and declassified the bulk of the material it had classified only a few days earlier.”

Compounding the problem: Gen. Campbell notified the IG that troop numbers provided by the command in the April-October 2014 time span were incorrect due to an “accounting error.”

The command had given correct numbers to the Pentagon, but not to the IG “despite the numerous times they had reviewed and approved SIGAR’s draft reports,” including a report in January submitted to the command for review.

The IG said that in one September-to-September time frame, 40,000 Afghan soldiers were dropped from the rolls.

On another issue, Congress provided $25 million for special programs for women in the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), which includes the army, police and other institutions. None of the money has been spent.

Gen. Campbell has acknowledge that attrition rates are growing, but chalks it up to the army taking on more combat roles and thus higher casualties.

“Even considering these higher casualties, the ANSF attrition rates, which account for all losses to the force, have not impacted combat readiness too severely,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The army and the police recruiting has not been a problem. Afghan youths continue to join the ranks of the ANSF.”

The command in Kabul issued a statement Tuesday denying wrongdoing.

“Let me assure you that we weren’t attempting to cover up the numbers,” said Lt. Col. Chris Belcher.

He explained the error this way: “The nature of the error was a double counting of civilians assigned to the ANA – civilian numbers were included in unit numbers and then also pulled out in a separate column, which was subsequently added into the end strength total.”

On attrition, he said, a number of steps are being taken to reduce casualties, such as adding more artillery and helicopter fire power.

“Casualties and attrition rates are challenges, and Afghan National Security Force leaders are taking measures to address them,” Col. Belcher said.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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