How to Build Spectral Armies

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Iraq and Afghanistan are separated by more than 1,000 miles and, although they both exist in what is now known as the Greater Middle East, they had little in common -- at least until March 2003, when the Bush administration followed up its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by invading Iraq. Since then, they've had quite a bit in common, including vast infusions of U.S. funds and the massive levels of corruption that accompany them, as well as the way refugees from both countries have been joining the same flow of the desperate and dispossessed heading for Europe. These days, with the spread of an Islamic State franchise to Afghanistan, even their insurgents are becoming part of the same "brand." And there's one other thing they've had in common in these years: ghosts.

In both countries, the U.S. military has built, on paper, vast local security forces from scratch to the tune of at least $65 billion in Afghanistan and at least $25 billion in Iraq. Their armies and police forces have, however, both turned out to be remarkably spectral in nature. They are filled with "ghost soldiers" and "ghost policemen" who are being paid salaries but don't exist. In some cases, they are quite literally already dead and wandering in the world of spirits. Their U.S.-funded salaries are, in turn, being pocketed by commanders and other senior military officials in an operation that couldn't be more profitable or "successful" -- at least until their ranks, sometimes thinned to nonexistence, are attacked by flesh-and-blood enemy forces. In Iraq, in 2014, after significant parts of that country's American-built army had abandoned its weaponry and fled its posts in the country's northern cities in the face of modest numbers of Islamic State fighters, the prime minister announced that there were at least 50,000 "ghost" troops in his military. (That figure was widely believed to be an underestimate.)

In Afghanistan more recently, as Taliban attacks have ramped up, similarly undermanned units have found themselves hard-pressed and have retreated, fled, or been defeated. The number of ghosts in the ranks of the Afghan security forces (as in its police) is unknown. Recently, however, the head of the provincial council of Helmand Province, a key area in the Taliban's southern heartland, estimated that 40% of the Afghan soldiers there might, in fact, be ghosts. Whatever the specific numbers, what's striking is the Pentagon's strange skill when it comes to creating, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, spectral security forces of a remarkably similar kind in two such, until recently, disparate countries. Make of that knack what you will while reading "The Pentagon's Progress," Nick Turse's epic saga of how the Pentagon made special "progress" and racked up "success" after "success" over the last 12 years building Iraq's spectral forces.