The Cable

‘Ghost Soldiers’: Too Many U.S.-Trained Afghans Are Going AWOL

Some 13 percent of Afghan military personnel training in the United States last year went AWOL.

Afghan army trainees inside a helicopter simulator at a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 21, 2009. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Afghan army trainees inside a helicopter simulator at a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 21, 2009. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

When Afghan pilots begin training on Black Hawk helicopters at Fort Rucker, Alabama, this year, the U.S. military will have two concerns: that they can fly and that they don’t fly the coop.

More than 1 in 10 Afghan military personnel training in the United States last year went absent without leave, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

That’s roughly double an already alarming historical desertion record that has seen some 152 Afghan trainees — about 6 percent of all those who were training in United States since 2005 — go AWOL while there, the report said.

“Many, if not most, [Afghans] are not signing up out of any motivation to become military or police. This is simply the only source of jobs available,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Improper payment, “family obligations,” and more casualties can all contribute to desertion, Cordesman told Foreign Policy. Police desert at a lower rate than military forces because “they’re less distant from home,” he said.

Afghans made up almost half of the 320 total foreign military trainees who went absent without leave from U.S. training since 2005. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of trainees from other countries went absent, the report said.

The extent of Afghan desertions first became public in 2010, when Fox News reported on 17 Afghans who went missing from a U.S. Air Force base. The problem was so bad that the Afghan Interior Ministry, which sent pilots to the United States, instituted a policy of requiring Afghan trainees to provide a family member as a “guarantor” of their return.

If the pilot went AWOL, the designated family member would be taken into custody by Afghan authorities. A 2009 memorandum reviewed by FP indicated that one pilot from the Interior Ministry had gone AWOL in mid-2009.

“His father, as guarantor, has been taken into custody” in Afghanistan, the memo said, noting it was the first AWOL that year, compared with 27 in previous years, when there was no guarantor requirement.

What’s currently driving the AWOL Afghans? Fear of the Taliban, corruption, and fear for their jobs.

Five trainees said they were afraid for their lives if they returned to Afghanistan after training.

And it isn’t only the trainees themselves whose lives may be in danger — Taliban threats to their families back in Afghanistan are also worrisome. At least one trainee reported that his family was attacked and had moved due to his U.S. training. One said the Taliban had threatened her family in their home, and two other trainees’ families reportedly received “threatening letters or phone calls,” SIGAR said.

If the Taliban can’t dissuade you from staying, job insecurity and corruption might.

Some trainees have left the Afghan National Army after reporting that they had been asked to bribe their way back into their old jobs. Afghanistan’s military policy doesn’t guarantee that trainees will maintain their previous jobs on return or that whatever post they receive will be in any way related to their U.S. training.

“When people perceive the entire system as corrupt, when promotion and pay and effective use of the force are not taking place because you can see the leadership is serving its own political or financial objectives, it is really hard to stop [desertion],” Cordesman said.

Afghanistan also moves those who have been training for longer than a year to reserve status, and the wait for active duty can last months.

More than half of the Afghan deserters are still unaccounted for, or escaped the United States, and less than one-fifth have been taken into custody or removed. “Limited vetting” of Afghan trainees creates a more unknown threat when they go absent without leave.

The AWOL trend is contributing to lower morale among trainees and fewer U.S.-based courses offered to Afghans, the report said.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill demanded answers on Friday, writing to U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in response to the SIGAR report and listing questions as to how the Defense Department plans to address the trend. McCaskill is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The AWOL trainees unfortunately may reflect more general Afghan attrition, Cordesman said.

“One of the key warnings we had in Vietnam was precisely this,” he said. “Long before the forces fell apart, the desertion rate among the [South Vietnamese army] went way up.”

Sharon Weinberger contributed reporting.

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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