WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government does not know exactly how many people work for its national police force, creating a risk that foreign funds for police salaries are being abused, a U.S. watchdog said on Monday.
The audit of Afghan police personnel and payroll systems by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, came as U.S. commanders prepare to hand greater control of security to Afghans and start withdrawing.
Since 2002, about $1.26 billion has been disbursed for Afghan police salaries from an international donors' trust fund run by the U.N. Development Program, the audit said.
But without a central police payroll system, in place, it is difficult to tell "where the money is actually going," said Herbert Richardson, the acting special inspector general.
The audit by his office said U.N. oversight also was "an issue."
A brazen jailbreak on Monday, in which hundreds of prisoners escaped through a tunnel dug by Taliban insurgents in Kandahar province, cast further doubt on the reliability of the Afghan government and its security forces.
Handing responsibility for security to Afghan forces is a key part of President Barack Obama's strategy for the war against Taliban insurgents. The war began nearly 10 years ago after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Obama has sent 30,000 extra American troops to Afghanistan in recent months but wants to start withdrawing U.S. forces in the middle of this year.
The special inspector general was created by Congress to scrutinize how U.S. aid to Afghanistan is spent.
Its report said the Afghan government "cannot determine the actual number of personnel that work for ANP (national police) because it has been unable to reconcile the number of personnel records or verify the data in four different personnel systems and databases."
Current Afghan plans call for an increase in police forces to 134,000 officers by this October.
Last September, the number of police personnel records in the different systems ranged from 111,774 to 125,218, the SIGAR audit said.
Richardson spoke about the report briefly on Monday during a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the Afghan government had taken many steps to address the accountability of its police but he worried some numbers could be "fictitious."
"You can have ghost employees, you can have AWOL employees, you can have individuals under multiple names ... and no way to account for it," Richardson told the commission.
In a December visit to Uruzgan province by Afghan Interior Ministry officials, the audit said, "no one was able to verify the amount paid" to police officers "or which individuals had received cash payments."
The United States has contributed about a third of the U.N. fund for Afghan police salaries, the audit said. But Washington has spent billions more to prepare Afghan forces for taking over security from U.S.-led troops.
Since 2002, the United States has provided more than $29 billion -- more than half of all U.S. aid spending -- for training and equipping the Afghan army and police, SIGAR said. Earlier this month, Congress appropriated another $11.6 billion for this purpose during the current fiscal year.
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Cynthia Osterman