The military has shut down a training program for Afghan pilots and maintainers in the U.S. because of high desertion rates among the trainees, according to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Desertions among members of the Afghan military training in the U.S., who often claim that they or their families have been threatened by the Taliban, have been a persistent problem for the U.S. military and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In its quarterly report in October 2017, SIGAR said: "Given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the fact that Afghan trainees who violate the terms of their visas suffer virtually no consequences for going AWOL (except for the possible return to Afghanistan), the AWOL rate is likely to either remain steady or increase."
In 2017, ICE reported that 152 Afghan trainees had deserted since 2005, and 83 of them either fled the country successfully, often traveling to Canada to seek political asylum, or were still missing.
SIGAR officials were initially fuzzy on the details of where the training was taking place and the number of pilots enrolled, but said that the program to train pilots on the AC-208 aircraft, a military version of the single-prop Cessna 208 Caravan, had been moved back to Afghanistan to an airfield near Kandahar.
"The AC-208 pilot training classes that were underway in the United States were disbanded due to the number of trainees who were going absent without leave (AWOL)," SIGAR said in its latest quarterly report to Congress, released Tuesday.
"Those students that did not go AWOL were pulled back to Afghanistan to complete their training. As a result, only one class graduated from the U.S.-based program," the report states.
SIGAR did not say how many pilots and maintainers were in the first AC-208 class but reported that 40 percent of them had deserted.
When asked by Military.com where the AC-208 training had been taking place, SIGAR spokesmen initially said Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, but spokesmen there and at Columbus Air Force Base said the only training for Afghan pilots in the state was on the A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft.
SIGAR spokesmen then said that the training on the AC-208 had been at a base near Corpus Christi, Texas.
The Defense Department awarded a $69.4 million contract in 2017 to Orbital ATK to provide AC-208 aircraft to the Afghan Air Force.
The aircraft can be rigged to fire Hellfire missiles, but the Afghans mainly use them for reconnaissance, transport and medevacs.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.