Three Afghan army officers disappeared from a multi-nation training exercise in Massachusetts this week. They were visiting a local mall in Cape Cod during a break in their training and weren’t seen for nearly two days, although Fox News is reporting that they have reportedly been found “
near the Canadian border.“
The incident has some potentially ominous overtones: the highest-ranking American officer killed in the post-9/11 era was assassinated by an Afghan soldier in a so-called “insider attack” this on August 5th. But the military claims that the three officers were exhaustively vetted, and National Guard Spokesman James Sahady
told Boston’s WBZ radio that “there’s no threat right now — just concern on where they are … did they go sightseeing, did they get lost, or did they have other agendas that we don’t know about right now.” The US State Department and Department of Defence are involved in the investigation into their disappearance, according to the WBZ report.
The officers likely didn’t get lost in a mall, and they probably aren’t plotting an act of terrorism on American soil. The most likely explanation is that they’re attempting to claim asylum in the United States, or to stay here on a more permanent basis than a single-entree trainee visa would allow.
This wouldn’t be the only recent incident in which trainees from the region have used US exchange programs as a potential opportunity to stay in the country. Earlier this month, two young Afghan police officers absconded from a DEA training program and attempted to travel to Buffalo, New York in order to contact one of the trainee’s relatives with the aim of staying in the US. The men, who a DEA spokesperson described as “among the best and brightest of their country,” were eventually located and sent home.
Ten years ago, Pakistani trainees for the DEA tried something similar. And high-profile defections during military and cultural exchanges are common: over 70 athletes and coaches claimed asylum during the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, including the flag-carrier for the Eritrean team.
The officers’ actions are somewhat wishful: Afghanistan just resolved a tense post-election political standoff, and it’s highly unlikely that the US would grant asylum to seekers from an allied, putatively democratic country. Actually granting them asylum would lead to a diplomatic crisis between Afghanistan and the US at at time when neither can really afford the confrontation. The officers will likely be sent home, after their brief and even myopic attempt at making a life for themselves in the US.
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