BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — It wasn’t the salt sea air or the quaint little villages that caused three Afghan soldiers to fall in love with old Cape Cod. Apparently it was the prospect of asylum in Canada that lured the trio to disappear over the weekend.
The three men, identified in the media as Maj. Jan Mohammad Arash, Capt. Mohammad Nasir Askarzada and Capt. Noorullah Aminyar, were participating in a US Central Command Regional Cooperation exercise at Camp Edwards when they decided to sample some of the local culture. They vanished from the Cape Cod Mall in Hyannis Saturday evening, causing quite a stir in the local media.
Officials rushed to reassure a nervous public that the men were not seen as a threat. They had no access to weapons, were in the country legally, and had broken no laws, a US military spokesman told the Cape Cod Times.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick hit the nail on the head when he was asked about the incident.
“There is a lot of speculation within the military that they may be trying to defect," he told the Associated Press Monday morning.
Border officers located the three men near midday on Monday at the Canadian border. The Cape Cod Times quoted an unnamed senior official as saying that they had been seeking asylum.
This would not be an isolated case of attempted defection of security personnel from Afghanistan. It wouldn't even be the first time this month.
Last week, two Afghan police officers left a training program organized by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Quantico, Virginia.
The pair, identified as Mohammad Yasin Ataye and Mohammad Naweed Samimi, were in the exclusive Georgetown section of Washington, DC when they apparently opted out of a boat ride on the Potomac to head for Buffalo, New York, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Canadian border.
DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told the Buffalo News that the men were attracted by “the lure of a better life,” but returned voluntarily to Quantico and are now back in Afghanistan.
This is a route that has been used before. In 2011 the State Department quietly scrapped its Youth Exchange Study (YES) initiative with Afghanistan after more than half of the 40 Afghan high-school students brought to the US vanished, many going over the border to Canada rather than returning home.
Earlier this month, an officer in the Afghan army sought asylum in the UK, where he had arrived as part of Afghanistan’s delegation to the NATO summit.
Lt. Col. Enayatullah Barak peeled off from the group right at Heathrow Airport. That knocked a hole in plans for him to carry the Afghan flag at the opening ceremony in Wales.
The incident embarrassed Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who was the ranking official at the summit, and dimmed the feel-good rhetoric emerging from the gathering on Afghan security forces’ readiness to stand on their own once the US combat mission ends in December.
Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai shake hands after signing a power-sharing agreement at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Sept. 21. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
The spate of would-be defections comes just as a long-brewing political crisis in Afghanistan has finally been put to rest.
On Sunday the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced that Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the country’s former finance minister and a former World Bank official, would succeed Hamid Karzai as president.
For the past three months Ghani had been locked in an election dispute with his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who complained that “industrial-scale fraud” had robbed him of victory.
Thanks in part to US Secretary of State John Kerry, who rushed to Kabul twice over the summer to broker a deal between the two men, Ghani and Abdullah signed a vaguely worded agreement to share power on Sunday.
“This was a moment of extraordinary statesmanship. These two men have put the people of Afghanistan first, and they've ensured that the first peaceful democratic transition in the history of their country begins with national unity,” Kerry said in a statement.
The problem is, it wasn’t exactly democratic, and it remains to be seen whether or not it will be peaceful. And national unity is not really in the mix.
“In the end, the deal to form a successor administration to Karzai’s was done behind closed doors and with huge amounts of foreign help,” writes Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent nonprofit. “At best, [Ghani and Abdullah] will now work as partners with a common goal. At worst, all those tasks will re-open or keep open old divides and rivalries.”
Despite efforts, the internationally observed audit could not uncover all the fraudulent votes because of “limitations to the technical audit process,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
The candidates themselves had legitimate concerns about the process, she acknowledged. But this did not detract from the success of the exercise:
“Nonetheless, the final outcome of the election process is legitimate and the results will be transparent,” she announced.
Just one question: If everything is going so well in Afghanistan, why are so many Afghans trying to get out?
Jean MacKenzie spent seven years in Afghanistan, where she worked as a journalist trainer at the Institute of War & Peace Reporting and served as senior correspondent for GlobalPost.
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