By Jessica Donati
WASHINGTON—A rising number of Afghan military trainees are going missing in the U.S., a government watchdog report said on Friday, a problem that is harming coalition efforts to stand up a national army capable of securing the country from the Taliban and other insurgents.
Most of the Afghan trainees who disappeared from U.S. military facilities since 2005 were company-grade officers in leadership positions, the report said. Those positions typically include midlevel military officials below the rank of general. Poor leadership is one of the major problems facing Afghan security forces struggling with high casualty rates, widespread corruption and low morale.
“The prevalence of company-grade officers is particularly alarming given the critical role these officers play in maintaining the overall operational readiness of the force,” the report said.
The desertions weigh on the morale of those left behind, the report said, and the U.S. military has canceled training slots this year in an effort to prevent desertions from increasing further.
In 2016, around 13% of all Afghan military trainees vanished, compared with an average 6% for all other years.
The report linked the rise in desertions to the high number of Afghan security force casualties, which have soared since most U.S. and coalition forces withdrew from Afghanistan nearly three years ago.
It said close to 2,500 Afghan police and soldiers were killed on the battlefield during the first five months of 2017, roughly in line with numbers for the previous year.
In addition to desertions, U.S. training efforts also sometimes are wasted when Afghan trainees are unable to return to their old units and fail to put their new skills in use. According to the report, some even quit the army after returning to Afghanistan, after refusing to pay bribes to get their old jobs back.
A total of 152 Afghan trainees have gone missing in the U.S., nearly half of the total for all other foreign military trainees over the period. Less than 20% of the missing Afghan trainees had been caught, the report said, while more than half the total had either fled the U.S. or were still missing.
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, acknowledged that desertions were a problem, saying that 27 Afghan trainees who had gone absent without leave in the U.S. had been returned to Afghanistan as part of an effort with Washington and other foreign governments to stop the practice.
“Deserters will be sacked and the cost of their training must be reimbursed,” said Gen. Waziri, who urged that each trainee be required to have a sponsor who is liable for the cost of training if the recruit absconds.
The problems facing the Afghan army illustrate the challenges bringing the 16-year conflict to a close. More than 11,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump, the third U.S. president to grapple with the country’s longest war, in August approved military plans to deploy more than 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, the bulk of which would be assigned to training their Afghan counterparts.The Wall St Journal,