The United States may be paying “ghost workers” in Afghanistan with some of the $1.2 billion in payroll funding it provided for that nation’s security forces, according a federal auditor.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko said in a letter to three U.S. commanders in Afghanistan last month that the United States may be “unwittingly helping to pay the salaries of non-existent members of the Afghan National Police (ANP).”

The problem isn’t new. A 2011 SIGAR report said Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry could not determine the actual number of personnel that work for the Afghanistan National Police or confirm that only working personnel for those forces had been paid.

Afghan National Army soldiers stand at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in March. (Reuters ).

Similarly, a 2007 report from the Pentagon said Iraq’s Defense and Interior ministries had identified a problem with ghost soldiers and police who existed only on paper.

Sopko said he has launched an audit of the personnel and payroll data for Afghan security forces. “If there is significant ghost payrolling or other mismanagement of these funds, it is not only a waste of money, but reliance on inaccurate ANP numbers could undermine U.S. transition planning as we continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan,” he said. 

Maj. Gen. Kevin R. Wendel, who heads the transition command in Afghanistan, said in a response letter on March 4 that his team is “aggressively pursuing this issue, but has not found evidence that anyone knowingly paid for non-existent workers.”

Wendel added that his command uncovered 54,000 “erroneous personnel ID numbers” in the payroll system for Afghan security forces, and that it is taking action to address the problem, including conducting audits to “place greater scrutiny over the Afghan financial processes.”

“Initial results of these efforts appear promising,” Wendel said.

The international community has dedicated nearly $3.2 billion toward paying Afghan forces since 2002, with 38 percent of the funds coming from the United States, according to Sopko. The European Union is withholding half of its $200 million contribution due to concerns about misuse and mismanagement of the funds, he said.

Wendel noted in his response letter that his command can withhold payroll funds if Afghan agencies to not comply with an agreement to enhance their accounting systems and provide better transparency and accountability.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail with news tips and other suggestions.