July 19, 2010: First, it was revealed last month that 17 Afghan military personnel had disappeared from a U.S. Air Force base in Texas. Now the air force has carefully checked their records and found that at least 46 foreign troops had walked away from their training courses in the last five years. All but two (one from Iraq, another from Djibouti) were Afghan.
These men had disappeared from a U.S. Air Force language school, where they learned enough English so they could attend U.S. military training courses. The media coverage implied that some of these guys could be terrorists, who joined the Afghan military, qualified for training in the United States, and then disappeared once you got there, so they could carry out attacks. But it appears the reason behind the disappearances was economic, rather than ideological or religious.
Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Eurasia, and Afghanistan, and a major source of "economic refugees," who account for a disproportionate number of people trying to get into Western nations, usually illegally. Thus, learning to speak English, and receive advanced military training in the United States, is seen as more of an opportunity to escape to the West, rather than to advance one's career back in Afghanistan. While fifty of so Afghans walked away from their training, many more considered it. Afghanistan has a lot of problems, including tribalism, corruption, widespread violence, religious and ethnic intolerance, and three decades of chaos. If all this seems insurmountable to Americans, it's intolerable for many Afghans. They just want out.
After the first 17 missing Afghans was revealed, American immigration officials went looking for them. They soon reported that they had tracked down at least eleven of the missing Afghans, using just Facebook. These men had gone to Canada, using the military ID the U.S. provided them while in the United States. It's easier to claim asylum in Canada, a fact widely known in Afghanistan (and often exploited by those leaving the country for a better life in the West.) U.S. officials believed they had located all but two or three of the missing seventeen Afghans, and expected to track down the rest soon.
Most of the missing Afghans made no effort to hide their identity, and left an easily traceable trail via the Internet, friends and family. Several did reveal a fondness for Islamic radicalism, which will make it difficult for them to obtain asylum anywhere in North America. This naïve and feckless attitude is all too common in Afghanistan, and a major reason why it has been so difficult to recruit and train a reliable and competent security force. Afghanistan has the lowest literacy rate (about 28 percent) in Eurasia, which makes it very difficult to train security personnel at all, or teach them any technical skills. But even if you have skills and are literate, there aren't many good jobs. Afghanistan, even for most Afghans, is a good place to get away from.
The U.S. now more carefully screens Afghans selected for training in the U.S., and the Afghan government will impose a fine of $40,000, to the families of soldiers who desert in the United States. This kind of sanction is common in Afghanistan (and the region in general), where collective punishment is a recognition of collective responsibility. In other words, tribalism.