- The Washington Times
Thursday, October 6, 2016

Eight Afghans training with the U.S. military in the U.S. went AWOL in September — part of 45 total that have gone missing since the beginning of 2015, the Pentagon confirmed this week, raising fears that they have disappeared into the shadows as illegal immigrants.

The Pentagon said the Afghans were screened beforehand to make sure they weren’t affiliated with terrorists or involved in human rights abuses, suggesting a lower risk of danger from the absconders. One of the eight who fled in September has already been found by Canadian authorities as he tried to enter that country.

The revelations came a day before the inspector general overseeing U.S. efforts in Afghanistan was to reveal problems over there, where U.S. taxpayers are still footing the bill for “ghost” soldiers — troops who appear on the books but aren’t really serving in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which cover both police and military.

“Persistent reports indicating discrepancies between the assigned force strength of the ANDSF and the actual number of personnel serving raise questions regarding whether the U.S. government is taking adequate steps to prevent taxpayer funds from being spent on so-called ‘ghost’ soldiers,” John F. Sopko, the inspector general, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in August.

The U.S. has paid $68 billion over the years to bolster Afghanistan’s security forces, and questions have mounted about whether that money has been well spent.

The troops that have gone AWOL in the U.S., reported last month by the Washington Free Beacon and updated Thursday by Reuters, are part of more than 2,200 who have been brought here as “students” to learn everything from leadership and language to infantry, intelligence, engineering, policing and ordnance skills. Some took part in Army Ranger training.

Of the 45 who’ve absconded since Jan. 1, 2015, 25 disappeared last year, and 20 have run off so far this year, including the eight in September.

Adam Stump, a Defense Department spokesman, said the Pentagon is trying to figure out better ways to prevent folks from going absent without leave, or AWOL.

“DOD is assessing ways to strengthen eligibility criteria for training in ways that will reduce the likelihood of an individual Afghan willingly absconding from training in the U.S. and going AWOL,” he said.

Once they are reported as absconders, they become targets for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations is aware of the situation, and is actively working to locate these individuals in coordination with the State Department and the Department of Defense. Specific details regarding these activities are not available due to the ongoing investigation,” ICE said in a statement.

Overseas, the U.S. is also facing trouble in tracking Afghan troops.

Mr. Sopko, the inspector general, pointed to reports that suggested a large chunk of the 320,000 uniformed members of the security forces may not be operative. The Associated Press quoted an Afghan official putting the actual force strength at only about 120,000.

In Helmand province, the police chief said as many as 50 percent of the 26,000 troops assigned there “did not exist physically” — though their salaries were still being paid, Mr. Sopko recounted in his letter to the Defense Department.

The Pentagon told Mr. Sopko that it will take until next summer before the Afghan government has a full database of all troops, complete with biometric identifiers. As much as 30 percent of the army and 10 percent of the police force aren’t in the database yet.

The Interior Ministry has been told it must come up with an action plan for Helmand province, in particular, or else risk losing U.S. support.

The ghost soldiers are a mixture of some who were once among the ranks but have died or otherwise left, and others who never existed in the first place. Commanders end up pocketing the salaries, which are partially paid for by the U.S.

American taxpayers spend more than $300 million a year to pay for salaries for only “partially verified” troops, the inspector general said in a 2015 report.

The problem stretches back for years. In 2006, before Mr. Sopko’s special Afghanistan inspector general’s post was created, the watchdogs for the State and Defense departments warned of inflated troop numbers.

Afghan officials can’t even give a straight number of how many troops are on their books, Mr. Sopko said.

Defense officials assured Congress earlier this year that they were trying to straighten things out.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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