KABUL/KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Police in parts of volatile southern Afghanistan have not been paid for weeks, officials say, undermining morale at a time when Taliban militants traditionally increase attacks on security forces.
The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan has repeatedly warned that the effectiveness of police and soldiers to fight the insurgency has been undermined by irregular pay and leave, exacerbated by corruption and weak leadership from commanders.
Dost Mohammad Nayab, spokesman for the governor of Uruzgan province, said local officials had spoken "repeatedly" with the interior ministry about wage arrears, but had received no satisfactory response, echoing comments from other officials in the region.
"Our police forces haven't been paid for a month," said Ghulam Farouq Sangari, police chief in the neighbouring province of Zabul. "When we speak with the interior ministry, they just say there are some problems with the system."
An interior ministry spokesman said there had been problems with salary payments in Uruzgan and the eastern province of Nuristan due to a failure with the transfer system at one large Afghan bank.
"We are now working on finding another way of transferring money to them," said spokesman Najib Danish.
However, another government official said the problem was also caused by concerns in some areas that payrolls were being inflated by non-existent "ghost police" and exacerbated by delays in getting the national budget approved in parliament.
"When that happens, it delays all the payments," said the official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Police units, usually worse paid and equipped than the military, are a core part of Afghanistan's security forces, taking on much of the fighting against Taliban insurgents and often suffering higher casualties than the army.
Their pay has been a problem for years, despite efforts by the government and international partners to cut "ghost police" from payrolls and ensure that wages are not lost through inaccurate records or skimmed off by corrupt officials.
Funds from foreign donors to pay police are disbursed through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to the Afghan government and mainly paid direct to individuals' bank accounts.
However, while efforts continue to integrate personnel data electronically, officials say they do not know how many among an authorized force strength of 157,000 are actually serving, or whether they are all being paid properly.
In testimony to a U.S. Senate committee last month, General John Nicholson, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said corruption and poor support for troops and police in the field was among the main problems facing Afghan forces.
Southern Afghanistan, including the key Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar, as well as neighbouring Uruzgan and Zabul, is likely to see some of the heaviest fighting in the traditional spring offensive.
Last year Taliban forces walked into the middle of Tarin Kot, capital of Uruzgan, after demoralized police abandoned dozens of checkpoints without a fight.
A dispute between rival police commanders was said to be one of the main factors that prompted the abandonment.
Despite that, local and national police in the province say they have not been paid since September. In Kandahar, local police in eight districts have not been paid since October, Zia Durrani, a police spokesman said.
"We have given them weapons, ammunition and territories but cannot pay them their salary. This is dangerous," he said.
The problem has been partly linked to differences between the Afghan National Police and local police units.
A recent statement from the interior ministry said reports that police in Kandahar and Uruzgan had not been paid did not concern national police but rather local units that did not come under its authority.
"The local police was created by the government but the government does not cooperate with us any more," Shamsullah, a local police commander in Zhari district of Kandahar, said by telephone.
"We do not have food, ammunition, fuel and now even our salary," he said. "If the government wants to eliminate local police, they should and let us go our way. Not paying us is not a solution."
Local elders fear that unpaid police and militia could undermine security further.
"A policeman with a gun is like a hungry lion," said Amanullah Hottaki, a tribal elder in Uruzgan. "They are armed and if they turn against the government, that will create a big problem."
Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mike Collett-White