Friday, June 18, 2010

Be on the Lookout

The U.S. military--and various law enforcement agencies--are looking for 17 members of the Afghan armed forces who've gone AWOL from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) at Lackland AFB, Texas.

According to Fox News, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service issued a "Be on the Lookout" bulletin for the Afghan military personnel on Wednesday night. According to the report, the 17 men have DoD ID cards, which allows them access to U.S. military installations.

A spokesman for Lackland's "host" unit, the 37th Training Wing, confirmed the AWOLs from DLI, and said the group includes both officers and enlisted personnel. All of the missing Afghan troops were undergoing English language training at the institute, which provides instruction to thousands of foreign military personnel each year.

But here's the rub: some of the Afghans have been missing for more than a year. The most recent AWOL occurred in January 2010, when 1st Lieutenant Javed Ayran disappeared. Military spokesmen offered no explanation as to why DoD waited until this week to issue the "lookout" bulletin.

Each of the missing Afghans was issued a Department of Defense Common Access Card, an identification card used to gain access to secure military installations, with which they "could attempt to enter DOD installations," according to the bulletin. Base security officers were encouraged to disseminate the bulletin to their personnel.

"The visas issued to these personnel have been revoked, or are in the process of being revoked. Lookouts have been placed in TECS," it reads.

Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), which is shared by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, is a computer-based database used to identify people suspected of violating federal law.

A federal law enforcement official described the issue as more of an "immigration problem" than a security threat, saying there is no information to link the AWOL Afghans to any terrorism or a security threat.

Still, that comment is rather puzzling. Foreign nationals over-stay their tourist or student visas on a recurring basis, contributing to our massive illegal immigration problem. But federal law enforcement doesn't routinely issue bulletins, asking state and local officials to keep an eye out for the illegals. Likewise, there is no indication that the NCIS (or other DoD investigative agency) has issued a lookout alert for other foreigners who've gone missing from DLI or other military training programs.

And, to make matters even more confusing, a senior law enforcement official told Fox that some of the AWOL Afghans have been caught. But he would not say how many are accounted for, or why the names and pictures of all 17 appear in the bulletin. Why waste time and effort on individuals who have already been apprehended?

Put another way: what does the official really mean when he says "a number of these guys have been located or accounted for?" Based on the recently-issued bulletin (and the urgency of the effort), we're guessing that "located" and "accounted for" are synonymous with "we think we know where they are."

It's also worth noting that some of the Afghans were destined for flight school after graduation from DLI. However, none had reached that stage of training, so concerns about another 9-11-style air attack are probably unfounded. Still, vetting Afghan military personnel has been problematic at best; thousands of recruits have walked away from their units and some have joined the Taliban. We're guessing there are legitimate concerns about the allegiances of some of the AWOL Afghans, their present whereabouts in the U.S. and what they might be up to.