More than 150 Afghan troops brought to the U.S. for military training have gone AWOL since 2005, with 13 of them still unaccounted for and perhaps living here as illegal immigrants now, an inspector general said in a new report Friday.
Part of the problem is that the U.S. never puts the trainees through an in-person interview and exempts them from registering as aliens when they arrive — both steps that other visitors would normally have to go through.
In-person interviews and requiring the troops to register beforehand would help the government gauge whether someone is likely to go absent without leave, and would give immigration officers information about relatives in the U.S. as starting points when someone does go AWOL, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said.
But the State Department rejected those suggestions.
The audit said that while no acts of terrorism have yet been traced to the trainees, immigration agents say they’re worried because a number who go AWOL end up trying to claim asylum in the U.S., stymieing any national security investigation into their behavior.
Beyond the potential danger, American taxpayers also miss out on the investment in the troops, the inspector general said.
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“It is clear that Afghan trainees go AWOL while in the United States at a far higher rate than do trainees from any other country, and we believe that the State Department (as well as other government agencies) should use all the tools at their disposal to reduce these occurrences and ensure that Afghan trainees return to Afghanistan and make use of the substantial U.S. taxpayer investment in training,” the audit concluded.
The number of troops going AWOL surged in 2015 and 2016 as security back home deteriorated.
Some Afghan troops currently being trained in the U.S. said the Taliban threatened their families back home once it became known they had a relative training here. Many of them said the training made them bigger targets when they returned.
Investigators identified 152 Afghan trainees who have gone absent without leave under the training program. Seventy of them fled the U.S., 39 managed to obtain legal status here, three returned to duty, 27 were arrested and put in deportation proceedings, and 13 remain unaccounted for.
The largest number disappeared from training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, but four went AWOL from training in Washington, D.C., three disappeared from Quantico, Virginia, and one from Arlington, Virginia.
The State Department and Homeland Security said they don’t think there’s a reason to be concerned.
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State officials said they don’t want to do in-person interviews before issuing visas to Afghan troops, and said they’re not convinced of the importance of full registration either.
State also said there’s no reason to improve communication with Homeland Security, saying they fear it would “potentially be at odds with our international commitments” on asylum.
Homeland Security said it would be improper for its own agencies to share information about someone applying for asylum.