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Some Afghan troops training in US feared violence at home. So they went AWOL

By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 20, 2017

Threats of death, widespread corruption and dismal job prospects spurred scores of Afghan troops to flee training courses in the United States, according to a report issued Friday.

Afghans were among several foreign nationals that went AWOL after arriving in the United States. But they were about half of the 320 foreign military and police personnel who have ditched military bases since 2005, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, the war effort's watchdog agency.

The report said 152 Afghans went AWOL, with 70 moving on to other countries afterward, 39 obtaining legal status like asylum and 27 either deported, arrested or awaiting processing for removal. As of March, the report said 13 have unknown statuses.

As President Donald Trump and the Pentagon seek to revamp the Afghan War strategy, the report offers a glimpse into profound challenges at ground level of the 16-year war that prompted Afghan security forces to make risky decisions to abandon their post in an unfamiliar country.

Those conditions appear to be a unique driver of abandonment. About 6 percent of Afghans left their training posts, while trainees from Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere went AWOL at a collective rate of .07 percent, the report said.

SIGAR interviewed seven Afghan trainees who were granted asylum and 35 current personnel, many of whom described looming acts of potential violence. One female trainee said the Taliban visited her home and threatened her family, with others reporting similar stories. One family was attacked and fled. Others feared their lives would be compromised if they returned from the United States with evidence of training there.

The report raises questions on the high costs of the war. About 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed there, with thousands of Afghan civilians and security forces also dead. A massive Taliban attack Wednesday killed 43 Afghan troops. Nearly $70 billion has been spent to train and equip the Afghan security forces, the report said.

"There are so many problems here, it's hard to know where to start. This is bad for national security, bad for Afghan military readiness, and bad for U.S. taxpayers," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said about the findings in a statement to The Washington Post.

"If the U.S. government can't keep tabs on foreign military trainees, maybe the training shouldn't take place in the United States," Grassley added.

The lawmaker sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and acting homeland security secretary Elaine Duke about the report, recommending the agencies shore up their tracking and reporting mechanisms, which may have contributed to the ongoing issue.

The report also concluded a simple, bloody reality: the Afghans simply did not want to face the simmering insurgency there. Trainees going AWOL tracked closely with rising death toll of Afghan police and military. Killings of security forces rose between April and October 2009, for instance, spurring an uptick in AWOL incidents. Similar spikes occurred in 2015 and 2016.

One soldier told SIGAR he had low confidence in the often U.S.-issued equipment, which he said worsened the risk when his unit encountered militants, Jennifer George-Nichol, a spokeswoman for the agency, told The Post. The soldier also expressed frustration over the lack of clarity about their mission, she said.

Other trainees feared their jobs would evaporate once they returned. One aircraft electrician was told by others who completed training and went back home that they were forced to pay bribes to take their jobs back.

The phenomenon also may have damaged the war effort. A vast majority of the AWOL personnel were junior officers tasked with leading dozens, and their abandonment crippled morale and raised suspicion of other Afghan troops and police who work closely with U.S. counterparts, the report found.
 

Afghan elite soldiers stand in formation at the School of Excellence at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, where Afghan commandos and Special Operations soldiers receive training.
TIM CRAIG/THE WASHINGTON POST

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