In parts of volatile southern Afghanistan, the police there say they have not been paid in weeks, lowering morale even further at a time of year when there is usually an increase in Taliban attacks against security forces.
Irregular pay, compounded by rife corruption and weak leadership, has undermined the effectiveness of police and soldiers to fight the insurgency, according to repeated warnings by the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Uruzgan Province spokesman Dost Mohammad Nayab said local officials had brought up the issue of wage arrears "repeatedly" with the Interior Ministry 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 neighboring Zabul Province. "When we speak with the Interior Ministry, they just say there are some problems with the system."
According to a ministry spokesman, a failure with the transfer system at one large Afghan bank had led to problems with salary payments in Uruzgan and the eastern province of Nuristan.
"We are now working on finding another way of transferring the money to them," said spokesman Najib Danish.
However, another official said payrolls were also being inflated in some areas by non-existent "ghost police" and made worse by delays in getting the national budget approved in parliament.
"When that happens, it delays all the payments," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Usually worse paid and less equipped than the military, police units are a core part of Afghan security forces, taking on much of the fighting against the Taliban and often suffering higher casualties than the army.
Despite efforts to cut so-called ghost police from payrolls and prevent wages from being lost through inaccurate records or skimmed off by corrupt officials, polic e pay has been a problem for years now.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) disburses funds from foreign donors to pay police to the Afghan government that are mainly paid directly into individuals' bank accounts.
Although efforts to integrate personnel data electronically are ongoing, officials say, however, that they do not know how many among a police force of 157,000 are actually serving or whether they are all being paid properly.
Corruption and poor support for troops and police in the field was among the main problems facing Afghan forces, said General John Nicholson, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee last month.
Southern Afghanistan, including the key Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, as well as neighboring 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 Uruzgan’s capital, Tarin Kot, after police gave up 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.
Nevertheless, local and national police say they have not been paid since September. In Kandahar, local police in eight districts have not been paid since October, said police spokesman Zia Durrani.
"We have given them weapons, ammunition, and territories, but cannot pay them their salary. This is dangerous," he said.
The problem is thought to be caused by differences between the Afghan National Police and local police units.
A recent Interior Ministry statement said reports that police in Kandahar and Uruzgan had not been paid did not concern national police but rather local units that were not under its authority.
"The local police was created by the government, but the government does not cooperate with us anymore," said Shamsullah, a local police commander in Zhari district of Kandahar. "We do not have food, ammunition, fuel, and now even our salary."
"If the government wants to eliminate local police, they should and let us go our way. Not paying us is not a solution," he added.
Local elders fear unpaid police and militias could further undermine security.
"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."
Written by Mirwais Hsarooni and Sayed Sarwar Amani for Reuters