In Afghanistan's rough and ragged reconstruction, one of the most frequently cited bright spots has been the surge in Afghan kids going to school.
When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, fewer than 1 million Afghans were in the classroom, and a minuscule number were girls. In recent years, the figure topped 8 million, with both sexes well represented, according to the Afghan government.
Now the extent of that success story is being thrown into doubt.
In a letter released Thursday, John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said top Afghan education officials recently claimed that their predecessors had inflated the number of students, teachers and schools.
Sopko did not say by how much he thought the figures might be exaggerated. But he was quoted last month as saying that the Afghan education system "counts absent students as 'enrolled' for up to three years before dropping them from the rolls."
He said 1.55 million "absent" students were included as part of the overall student total last year.
"The [education] ministers reported that there are no active schools in insecure parts of the country, and that former officials doctored statistics, embezzled money, and interfered with university entrance exams," Sopko wrote.
"These allegations suggest that U.S. and other donors may have paid for schools that students do not attend and for the salaries of teachers who do not teach," Sopko added in a letter seeking more information from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the conduit for U.S. aid to the Afghan education system.
John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, testifies on Capitol Hill last June. In a letter released Thursday, Sopko says the U.S. may have been paying for "ghost schools, ghost students and ghost teachers" in Afghanistan.
The Afghan minister of education and the minister of higher education recently made the revelations to parliament. Those education officials serve President Ashraf Ghani, who was elected last year, and they say the inflated numbers were generated by education officials working for the former president, Hamid Karzai.
The U.S. has spent more than $100 billion on rebuilding in Afghanistan, and of that, $769 million has gone to the Afghan education system, which means the education funding has been less than 1 percent of the overall U.S. aid. All those numbers are dwarfed by the sums the U.S. military spent fighting the war in Afghanistan.
The letter is the latest from Sopko's office suggesting the U.S. has been getting much less than expected for money spent in Afghanistan.
"The allegations about ghost schools, ghost students, and ghost teachers call for immediate attention," Sopko said. He asked USAID to provide more information by the end of June.
USAID has often cited Afghan's education system as an example of real progress in a country still plagued by the ongoing Taliban insurgency, widespread poverty and endemic corruption. But the U.S. agency has relied on Afghan officials for data and could not confirm the figures independently, according to Sopko.
In response to Sopko's letter, USAID issued a statement saying it "takes seriously any allegations of manipulated or falsified data. We have asked the Ministry of Education for more information regarding the Minister's statement."