A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealed that 50 percent of all foreign military personnel that went AWOL (“Absent Without Leave”) while receiving training in the US since 2005 were from Afghanistan. This is an alarming rate considering that Afghan forces have only made up one percent of foreign military personnel trained in the same time frame. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deemed ANDSF trainees that have gone AWOL “to be high risk because they involve militarily trained individuals of a fighting age who have demonstrated a ‘flight risk.'”
SIGAR reported 152 ANDSF personnel have gone AWOL since 2005. Of those, “83 either fled the United States or remain unaccounted for, and only 27 have been arrested or removed by law enforcement.” Factors such as poor administrative planning and support, low morale, and increased Taliban threats personally-targeting trainees and their families were cited as primary causes for Afghan personnel going AWOL. Variations of these same problems have led to high attrition rates within the ANDSF ranks in Afghanistan as well, as noted by SIGAR this fall in a comprehensive “lessons learned” report.
SIGAR pointed out that administrative flaws plague the process for Afghan trainees traveling to and from the US for training. Vetting and investigations of AWOL cases are carried out by US agencies, but “issues with interagency coordination have hindered investigatory efforts to locate AWOL trainees.” On top of this, there are few, if any, consequences for trainees who have gone AWOL. Fifty-six of the trainees who went AWOL did so from the same base in San Antonio, Texas.
On the Afghan administrative end, responsibility for what happens to a trainee when they return to Afghanistan falls to the oft-inept Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior. SIGAR conducted interviews with ANDSF personnel trained in the US who expressed that they “did not expect to have a job upon return to Afghanistan,” or “were reportedly asked to pay bribes to get their jobs back.” The Afghan government also requires anyone in training for more than a year be moved to the reserves, making re-entry into active duty roles unnecessarily difficult for US-trained ANDSF personnel. These issues speak to a failure of the program’s goal to place US-trained Afghans into strategic and influential roles in the fight against the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
Some 103 of the 152 trainees who went AWOL were company-grade officers; this particularly alarming ratio shows how the AWOL trend ultimately damages operational readiness of forces back in Afghanistan.
Trainees interviewed by SIGAR also stated that they were apprehensive to return to Afghanistan out of fear of being targeted by the Taliban specifically for having trained in the US. One such interview cited a trainee saying “the Taliban visited her home and threatened her family because of her involvement with the US, two others stated that their families had received threatening Taliban letters or phone calls.”
For years, the US has brought Afghan trainees stateside for training initiatives meant to bolster and educate ANDSF personnel in an effort to enhance coordination with US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the conflict with the Taliban continues to deteriorate across the country. Just this week, the Taliban attacked a police headquarters, killing 41, and an Afghan Army base, killing another 40-60. With a surging Taliban striking fear into the minds of prospective ANDSF candidates, and US-trained AWOL cases on the rise, the future of the US-based training program looks bleak.
Concrete assurances and oversight must be implemented to benefit the process for trainees, both on the US and Afghanistan side. If not, DoD and SIGAR conclude “that the AWOL rate is likely to either remain steady or increase.”
Phil Hegseth is a social and digital media specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal.