At least 44 Afghan troops who were in the United States for military training have gone missing over the last year, likely in an attempt to find work and live illegally in the country, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Defense officials told Reuters that while other foreign troops visiting the U.S. for military training have sometimes gone missing, the pace of Afghan troops running away is "out of the ordinary."
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Eight Afghan troops have left military bases without authorization since September alone, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said while disclosing for the first time the total number of troops who have gone missing this year.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported last month that several Afghan military trainees had disappeared from U.S. bases in September and were being pursued by federal authorities.
Afghans participating in the country’s training program are vetted before they arrive in America to confirm they have not committed human rights abuses and do not have ties to terrorist groups, Stump said. Still, the disappearances raise questions about the security procedures in place for the programs.
"The Defense Department is assessing ways to strengthen eligibility criteria for training in ways that will reduce the likelihood of an individual Afghan willingly absconding from training in the U.S. and going AWOL [absent without leave]," Stump said.
An unnamed defense official told Reuters the U.S. had not found evidence that any of those who went missing had committed crimes or posed a threat to the homeland. Heightened security measures have reduced incidents of Taliban militants infiltrating the Afghan army.
Roughly 2,200 Afghan troops have undergone military training in the U.S. since 2007. The program, intended to train and equip those troops, has cost the U.S. $60 billion since 2002.