CAMP SHAHEEN, Afghanistan — If first impressions really can be gleaned from footwear, Afghan security forces may be about as disjointed and ragged as a state-run military can get.
As recruits stood in formation here last week, some wore nearly paper-thin black boots one stumble away from an exposed heel or toe. Others had on boots better suited for trekking through feet of snow than standing on sun-scorched gravel. The lucky ones had the same well-padded, sandy-colored boots worn by a visiting U.S. general and his support staff.
“This one, when it gets wet, they are not comfortable,” said one soldier, Abdul Ali, 21, pointing down at his crumbled black footwear.
The sad state of soldiers’ boots highlights something that U.S. military officials have known for about two years: Despite more than $68 billion in U.S. funding for Afghan security forces over the past 14 years, they still can’t even clothe themselves.
Because of widespread corruption and incompetence, the U.S.-led coalition has taken control of procurement of uniforms and boots for the Afghan army and the Afghan national police.
Now, the coalition is trying to airlift or ship in more than a million pairs of boots to make sure Afghan forces can properly walk onto the battlefield. Some of the orders for those boots were placed as far back as 2014.
The shipments of boots — which cost about $75 to $90 per pair — are projected to total about $100 million through the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The coalition expects to spend an additional $215 million on boots, uniforms and gear for Afghan forces in fiscal 2017.
U.S. taxpayers will be picking up about 80 percent of the tab.
Ken Watson, head of essential functions for NATO’s Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), said the coalition had “no choice” but to get into the clothing business to avoid a barefoot army.
In 2012, as the coalition was preparing to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan, it transferred to the Afghan government responsibility for the purchase of soldiers’ and police officers’ boots and uniforms. But the Afghan procurement system was overwhelmed because of widespread corruption, poor management and overreliance on the lowest bidder, often from China.
As a result, Afghanistan became a model for how not to outfit an army.
Thousands of pairs of size 12 military boots flooded into the country, even though it’s rare for an Afghan’s foot to exceed size 10.
Some pairs arrived with each boot a different size. Even when both boots did fit, they were often so poorly manufactured that they quickly needed to be replaced.
“I’ve come across boxes of new boots with the soles already split, so we had to take them to the cobbler,” said Mohammad Zaman Momozai, the police chief of Parwan province.
Getting the Afghan government to handle its own military procurement has been further complicated by President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to more closely scrutinize contracts to avoid fraud, Watson said.
“So we had to go back in. . . . You just can’t stop the flow of stuff,” Watson said. “He stopped buying, and that means someone has got to do it.”
While boots and uniforms account for a tiny fraction of Pentagon spending in Afghanistan, they highlight the choices facing President Obama and other world leaders over spending to prop up about 200,000 Afghan soldiers and 151,000 police officers.
At a summit in Warsaw in July, NATO leaders will seek commitments of an additional $4 billion annually for Afghan security through 2020. Western diplomats say the request will be in addition to about $3 billion in annual aid for Afghan reconstruction, which will be a topic at a summit in Brussels in October.
The stakes for Afghanistan are enormous, as the country’s battle against the Taliban insurgency shows no sign of subsiding.
According to the World Bank, Afghanistan is spending about 15 percent of its gross domestic product on security. Most Western countries, including the United States, spend less than 5 percent.
Afghanistan — where the poverty rate has crept up to 39 percent and where nearly one-fourth of residents are jobless — will be hard-pressed to sustain that level of spending.
But even if the international community keeps pumping in billions of dollars, there is growing concern about monitoring resources as the number of U.S. troops declines.
“The United States military has lost much of its ability to make direct observations, provide tactical mentoring and collect reliable information,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a report to Congress last week.
Shipments of new boots from the United States, for example, are handed over to Afghans for storage in army and police supply depots.
From there, Afghan officials are responsible for distributing them. With CSTC-A officials housed on just four major bases and two smaller ones, Watson admits he’s not sure whether all the goods are going where they are supposed to.
“We can’t throw and catch and see where there may be problems along the supply chain,” said Watson, who estimates that 10 percent of the imported uniforms and boots will be lost, resold or stolen along the way. “The focus needs to be on controlling them to make sure they don’t disappear or show up in a bazaar somewhere.”
Even here at Camp Shaheen, the timely arrival and distribution of needed clothing and footwear isn’t guaranteed.
“We just received 2,000 pairs of boots, and 50 percent of them were size 12,” said Col. Christian Walking, a German adviser with the Afghan army’s 209th Corps.
That could be a sign that Afghan military leaders are trying to unload old stocks of boots, even though CSTC-A has shipped in 89,000 new pairs since October.
“We don’t even buy size 12,” Watson said.
For the past year, SIGAR has been conducting an audit of clothing purchases. In September, John F. Sopko, the inspector general, informed coalition commanders that preliminary findings revealed that tens of thousands of Afghan troops were not receiving “cold weather clothing” such as hats and gloves.
“When they come here, they just receive uniforms and nothing else,” said Col. Atei Ataoulah, head of training for the Afghan army in northern Afghanistan. “When they want to wash their feet, they don’t have shower shoes.”
The shower shoes will probably have to wait.
For now, the coalition is focused on just making sure good boots get on the ground.
As of earlier this month, just 23 percent of 388,686 pairs of army boots and 29 percent of 572,361 pairs of police boots ordered in 2014 and 2015 had been delivered, according to coalition records.
An additional 245,000 pairs are being ordered for soldiers and police officers this year.
And coalition officials expect they will have to remain in the clothing business well into the future.
Watson noted, however, there is one positive trend.
At least for now, Afghan security forces remain capable of buying and cooking their own food — although much of the funding for that still comes from the international community.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.