EXCLUSIVE: The United Nations Development Program, which for years has run a multibillion-dollar trust fund to pay salaries for Afghanistan’s 150,000 national police, has been hit with a harsh ultimatum: come up with a plan to verify the true number of police officers on the Afghan payroll by the end of this month -- or else.
The “else” is something that UNDP, the UN’s anti-poverty agency, has never faced before: a shutoff of a U.S. portion of the millions in fees the agency charges to run the police financing program, which is slated to cost nearly $300 million in the first six months of this year alone for “Phase VII” of its existence. UNDP’s piece of the action for managing the fund is 4 percent of the tally, or nearly $12 million.
All told, some $3.8 billion has been spent on the so-called Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, or LOTFA, which has been administered by UNDP since its creation in 2002. The U.S. contribution amounts to more than $1.3 billion -- and since 2006, U.S. government auditing agencies have been finding mammoth problems with the personnel records and payroll data associated with the program.
How much money overall has been siphoned off by police payroll corruption, in particular by Afghan officials who can exploit holes in the system, is still a mystery -- in large part because the data needed to solve the puzzle, and computer systems that can speak to each other to correlate the information, still does not exist.
In past months the crisis has hit new heights of tension, with European Union donors temporarily withholding $100 million in contributions to LOTFA while they expressed concerns about its management.
How much money overall has been siphoned off by police payroll corruption is still a mystery.
Just before Christmas, President Ashref Ghani called LOTFA a “cash cow” for UNDP and demanded that his bureaucrats develop a plan to bring it under government control within the next six months -- the length of time allotted to LOTFA.
The latest ultimatum toward UNDP is buried in the final pages appended to a new audit report on the police payroll scandal by the Special U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, published today.
It represents part of an apparently determined multinational effort to drain the longstanding police payroll swamp -- which is rife with tens of thousands of “ghost” personnel, phony food ration claims, and IDs that never retire from the system, even when the police do.
Among other things, the report declares that the “window of opportunity” to clean up the longstanding mess “is narrowing.” It added that “this may be the international community’s last chance” to reform the financial support for police ,who will become more important than ever with the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
That effort is one that UNDP also says it supports -- even though as recently as last fall it has claimed that dealing with many of the problems was “outside UNDP’s current areas of responsibility,” and attempted to lay most of the blame for the mess on the Afghan government. That was followed by President Ghani’s hostile pushback.
Many of the problems that SIGAR outlines in its report have been made public before, either by SIGAR itself or the Pentagon’s Inspector General, among others.
Among the ones mentioned in the new report:
- There are twice as many Afghan national police ID cards in circulation as there are national police;
- For most of the past decade, two electronic human resource systems, one managed by UNDP and one by the Afghan government, haven’t been able to talk to each other, with disastrous results. The UNDP system manages payroll; the government system manages personnel records.
A match between the two is supposedly provided by the police ID cards and their numbers. But in fact, MOI tallies have been accepted without much questioning by everyone.
- The UNDP payroll system, the report noted, “was not fully functional at all provincial headquarters,” meaning payroll and staffing information mostly comes from police posts without much verification (where crooked officers have the most incentive to inflate staffing and posts that receive extra hazard pay). In some cases, more police are reported working than are even authorized.
- Time sheets for rank-and-file police are written up by their officers, another opportunity to falsify information and siphon off the resulting pay.
- 20 percent of Afghan national police are at risk of not receiving their full salaries because they are paid in cash by a “trusted agent,” appointed by the Afghan MOI, and often unsupervised. SIGAR deems that “a process that lacks documentation and accountability,” where as much as half of these payments are possibly diverted.
- UNDP contracts with an “independent monitoring agent” who is supposed to cross-check and verify personnel information. But, according to SIGAR, the monitoring agent did a haphazard job of sampling, and may have inflated the percentage of “verified” police personnel by more than 40 percent.
(Last October, UNDP’s own Office of Audit and Investigation did a “desk review” of the agency’s oversight of the “independent monitoring agent,” which declared the effort to be “unsatisfactory,” and recommended UNDP take “prompt” action to fix the situation. UNDP declared that it accepted the review’s recommendations, and published the news a month later.)
CLICK HERE FOR THE “DESK REVIEW”
The get-tough suggestion appears at the end of SIGAR’s dismal findings in a draft response from the U.S.-led multinational military command structure that remains to support President Ghani as his government takes the lead responsibility for national security.
In a handwritten note on a copy of the audit, Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite, deputy commander of the international security group known as the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A), declares that “this command is committed to achieving dramatic results” on the police payroll issue.
He urges SIGAR’s auditors to “pay particular attention” to the sections of his response that “reflect the increased fiscal discipline, oversight and policy adherence stipulated to UNDP to effect change.” He also underlines his “intent not to transfer” U.S. Department of Defense funds to UNDP “until we can be assured of revised process control.”
CSTC-A’s response also turns up the heat on Afghanistan’s Ministry of the Interior (MOI) to clean up its act. The CSTC-A sets a March 15 deadline for the ministry to upload “100 percent” of the accurate police personnel records into a database under its control, and a January 2016 deadline to make sure that all of that information is integrated with the payroll system managed by UNDP that actually dispenses cash.
Failure to do either one, the military response says, will result in a 5 percent cut in payments to the ministry for “operations and maintenance” -- a sum that is not disclosed in the document.
All of the reforms for U.N. bureaucrats and Afghan government officials alike are supposed to be wrapped up in “commitment letters” between the international military command, UNDP and the Afghan government, which were supposed to take effect on January 1, but are still in draft form.
In response to questions from Fox News, a spokesman for UNDP said that the agency is “recruiting 17 officers who will “verify payroll processes at the provincial and district level;” put out an international bid for a new monitoring agent; launched a “two-month end-to-end review of the entire payroll process”; and “developed a poster series in local languages informing police of their salary rights which will be distributed to police stations in 2015.”
The agency also is updating U.S. and other Western donors to LOTFA on a weekly basis about its efforts.
In the near future, however, UNDP may also find that its role has come to an end. The six-month Phase VII of LOTFA, according to project documents on the UNDP website, “marks the beginning of a transition phase during which LOTFA activities are transitioned” to Ghani’s government.
That announcement is heavily laden with escape clauses that include reference to nebulous “activities that may carry over beyond June 30 and cannot be arbitrarily ended.”
But they also include a minimum 90-day announcement period for the Afghan government to terminate UNDP’s “partnership” in LOTFA entirely.
Asked about the possibility of a parting of the ways in Afghanistan over policing, the UNDP spokesman told Fox News that “a central goal of UNDP’s work worldwide is to build capacity of national counterparts with a view to phasing out its assistance in due course.”
UPDATE: The day after this story was published, a UNDP spokesman told Fox News that the organization had been incorrect in saying that it was “recruiting 17 officers who will verify payroll processes at the provincial and district level.” The spokesman said that “while the recruitment process was initiated, it was suspended under the LOTFA VII inception phase agreement with the Government of Afghanistan.”