Amid assurances by the State Department and Homeland Security that there’s no cause for concern, an inspector general said in a new report Friday that more than 150 Afghan troops brought to the U.S. for military training have gone AWOL since 2005.
Thirteen of them remain unaccounted for and could be living in the U.S. as illegal immigrants, said the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Despite the federal government’s assurances, the report said “the limited vetting of Afghan trainees, and the restrictions of the investigatory and asylum processes, may pose a security risk to the United States when trainees go AWOL.”
One major problem is the trainees are exempt from the usual visitor requirement of in-person interviews by the State Department and registration as aliens, reported the Washington Times.
The audit noted the vetting process would enable the government to gauge whether or not a soldier is likely to go AWOL and would give immigration officials information about relatives who would be starting points in any effort to find them. But the State Department, according to the inspector general, dismissed those suggestions.
The inspector general said it’s “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.”
Some Afghan troops now training in the U.S. said their training makes them and their relatives targets of the Taliban, according to the report.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, expressed concern Friday after the report was released, the Washington Examiner said.
“The majority of these Afghan military trainees have been located, but the fact that any of them remain unaccounted for is deeply concerning and it’s important we get more information on how this happened and what’s being done to locate these individuals,” the senator said.
Investigators found 152 Afghan trainees had gone AWOL, with 70 fleeing the U.S., 39 managing to obtain legal status, three returning to duty, 27 arrested and prosecuted for deportation, and 13 unaccounted for.
The Times noted there’s minimal communication about the trainees between the State Department and Homeland Security.
State officials argued that increasing communication with DHS would “potentially be at odds with our international commitments” on asylum.
Homeland Security, the Times reported, said it would be improper for its own agencies to share information about someone applying for asylum.
While the inspector general said no terrorist attacks have been linked to the AWOL trainees, three Afghans who fled from a Pentagon training program during the September 2016 bombing spree in New York and New Jersey by Afghan-born suspect Ahmad Rahami were investigated for possible connections.
That month, four other Afghan military trainees fled, two from Fort Benning, Georgia, one from Fort Lee, Virginia, and one from an Army facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
Earlier this week, a jury found Rahami guilty of eight federal charges in connection with the New York bombing, which wounded 30 people.
Retired Army officer Joe Myers, who was posted in Kabul, Afghanistan, acknowledged to the Free Beacon it’s “more sensitive for homeland security” when the Afghan trainees disappear, pointing out that one of the graduates of the program was ISIS military commander Gulmurod Khalimov.
Khalimov attended and completed several State Department-sponsored counter-terrorism programs.
A Pentagon manual says the U.S. programs can include “potentially sensitive or lethal training.”