In mid-June, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) issued a "Be on the Lookout" bulletin for 17 members of the Afghan military, who had gone AWOL from the Defense Language Institute at Lackland AFB, Texas.
As we noted at the time, the lookout alert raised some rather interesting issues:
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"The visas issued to these personnel have been revoked, or are in the process of being revoked.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.
Federal officials interviewed by Fox News tried to downplay the matter, despite NCIS's transmission of the "lookout" memo. A Defense Department spokesman claimed that most of the Afghans had already been accounted for; a law enforcement source described the issue as "more of an immigration problem" than a security risk, despite the Afghan's ability to access military installation, and stepped-up search activities (as evidenced by the NCIS bulletin).
And the number of AWOL Afghans is much higher than first thought. FNC has learned at least 46 Afghan military members who have gone missing before, during or after language training in the United States--roughly one out of every 15 assigned to the program over the last five years.
The [June] BOLO alert included men who had been apprehended more than six months before it was issued, and it failed to include the name and photo of the most recent Afghan to vanish from DLI — a pilot who disappeared in March — as well as 28 others who have gone AWOL in recent years.
"Since 2002, 745 students have passed through the U.S. on this training and only 46 have actually gone absent without leave, and in 2009 there was a peak of 21 students," Col. Stewart Cowen, NATO spokesman, Afghanistan, told FoxNews.com.
Citing statistics provided by the Department of Homeland Security, Cowen said 25 of the 46 remain unaccounted for.
According to Fox, at least 18 of the missing men are believed to be in Canada, home to a growing number of AWOL Afghan military personnel. Reporter Jana Winter also discovered the number of Afghans who have walked away from DLI has skyrocketed in recent years; in 2007, only three Afghans were reported AWOL from the language training center. Two years later, the number of missing Afghans had grown to 21.
To help curb the AWOL problem, a full-time liaison officer, Lt Col Wahab Sultany, was assigned in January to work with Afghan students at DLI. By all accounts, Sultany was very successful; not a single student went AWOL during his watch. But Lt Col Sultany was suddenly recalled to Afghanistan, and sure enough, another Afghan soldier went AWOL shortly after his departure.
Predictably, officials at DoD, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security are trying to put the best possible spin on this situation. And, to be fair, some of the Afghans are low-risk. Given the opportunity to flee a war-ravaged, impoverished nation, they used their DLI posting as an opportunity to flee Canada, or disappear among the vast illegal population in the United States. Of course, the desire to get out of Afghanistan is no excuse for violating the immigration laws of Canada, or this country.
But there's also the matter of how carefully the Afghans were vetted, and who they might be associating with while on the lam. In years past, the screening of Afghan soldiers was notoriously poor, allowing Taliban and Al Qaida sympathizers to infiltrate the ranks. There is the possibility that terrorists may have slipped into the DLI program, using their free ticket to America to go AWOL and link up with other radicals. No wonder NCIS sent out that BOLO bulletin last month, even if much of the information was outdated.
One more note: Fox News located eleven of the original AWOL group by simply searching Facebook. Go figure. Memo to the feds: try looking on-line; it's amazing what you can find on social media sites.