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Afghan military trainees go AWOL in the United States; Grassley presses for answers, fixes

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is pressing the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to explain lapses in the screening and tracking of Afghan military trainees in the United States after an inspector general report shows a number went missing, with 13 trainees still unaccounted for.
“There are so many problems here, it’s hard to know where to start,” Grassley said. “This is bad for national security, bad for Afghan military readiness, and bad for U.S. taxpayers. If the U.S. government can’t keep tabs on foreign military trainees, maybe the training shouldn’t take place in the United States. The report also shines new light on the old problem of agency failures to communicate with each other, even under the same departmental umbrella. They have to do a better job of that, especially those fulfilling the no. 1 responsibility of the federal government of protecting the homeland. That’s why I’m writing to press the relevant agencies for answers.”
A report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said that since 2005, more than half of the foreign trainees who go absent without leave (AWOL) in the United States are from Afghanistan. Of those AWOL Afghan trainees -- soldiers in the United States for special military training -- 70 moved to other countries afterward, 39 obtained legal status such as asylum, and 27 were either deported, arrested or awaiting processing for removal. As of March, the report said 13 have unknown statuses.
The report cites agency findings that such AWOL trainees are considered “high risk” because they involve militarily trained individuals of fighting age who have demonstrated a “flight risk” and have low risk of arrest and detention for absconding. In addition to posing national security concerns in the United States, the missing trainees could harm operational readiness in Afghanistan, and their absence wastes millions of dollars of the almost $70 billion of U.S. tax dollars spent to train and equip the Afghan military.
The report finds that the U.S. agencies involved have communication failures that have contributed to their inability to keep track of the Afghan trainees or investigate those who go AWOL. In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, Grassley pressed the agencies to explain their disagreements with the report’s recommendations on improving communication and data collection.
“Unfortunately, despite the numerous national security concerns associated with this high risk group, neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Department of State seemed to agree with the recommendations offered by SIGAR,” Grassley wrote.
Grassley said the problem of poor intra-agency information-sharing over potentially problematic individuals leading to unwarranted immigration benefits is well-known. He cited the example of an individual at a summer camp in California who was identified as a potentially serious risk to public safety, yet still allowed to work with children, because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) failed to communicate about the risk concerns. The individual eventually was arrested for molesting children in his care.
“To remedy this potential for miscommunication, USCIS needs to be able to rely on law enforcement partners like ICE for notification of derogatory information that could impact these adjudicative decisions,” Grassley wrote. “It is my understanding that the Department of Homeland Security still has not developed formal protocol to assist ICE in notifying USCIS directly about targets of investigations.”
Grassley asked the agencies to explain why they disagree with some of the report’s recommendations to better screen and track Afghan trainees. He asked for a briefing of committee staff and a response to his letter by Nov. 2.
The letter is available here.