For the Afghan soldiers who have gone AWOL from an Air Force base in Texas, there's no place like Canada.
Since 2002, 46 Afghans have deserted their armed forces while in the U.S. for language and military training. Of those 46, roughly half--at least 22--have found their way north of the border.
They made the trip with the help of a network of people, including Afghans who left Lackland Air Force Base before them; a group of naturalized and undocumented Mexican women in Texas; relatives of current and former Afghan military students living in the West; and at least one Iranian taxi driver who runs a human smuggling business at the Canadian border.
The Afghans who have made it to Canada appear to be living comfortably there -- and many have put themselves on Facebook, where they connect with other Afghan dissenters and active U.S. and Afghan military personnel, including members of the Afghan military currently attending the Defense Language Institute at Lackland or receiving training at other military bases in the U.S.
Based on interviews with U.S. and Afghan military personnel, civilian and military sources at the Defense Language Institute, interviews with some of the AWOL Afghans and information gleaned from their online profiles, FoxNews.com has exclusively uncovered details of a pipeline that runs from San Antonio to Toronto.
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The first leg of the pipeline involves a group of women, some of whom are believed to be Mexicans illegally in the U.S., who pick up the men outside Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and drive them to their next stop. Often, that’s a bus station or airport, but sometimes the women drive them farther. In at least two instances, they accompanied the Afghans all the way to Canada.
At least six Afghans flew from Texas to Buffalo, N.Y., multiple sources say, and then traveled the short distance to Niagara Falls, where they posed as bumbling, lost tourists who crossed into Canada and kept on going.
At least three of the AWOL men now living in Toronto have profile pictures on Facebook that feature them standing in front of Niagara Falls, including. Mohammad Nasim Fatehzada, whose Facebook profile picture, timestamped June 21, 2008, shows him posing at the Falls.
Two others, Sardar Ahmadi and Mohammad Zaher Aetimady, traveled to Canada by way of a long cross-country bus trip, Ahmadi told FoxNews.com. He posted photos online of his DLI graduation and of his sightseeing trip to Washington D.C., where he posed in front of the Capitol. There are also photos on Facebook of Ahmadi at a Quality Inn in Philadelphia. Aetimady, who belongs to the Facebook group “We Love Roadtrips,” posted photos of himself inside the Toronto subway system.
When asked if anyone had given him money to travel to Canada, Ahmadi said in a Facebook message:
“hi, this is sardar Ahmadi. that is not true nobody give money to any one . it is very cheap . not that much expensive only 120 or something by bus from taxes to bufolo. in D L I every body gets money from school about $1500 USA Daller per month. that school scholarship money or something.”
The former Afghan liaison at DLI, Wahab Sultany, told FoxNews.com that students receive a monthly stipend of $650 from NATO. But a NATO spokesman told FoxNews.com in an email:
"The Afghan students are in receipt of their ANA pay. They also receive a supplementary travel and living allowances, this is funded through NTM-A. NTM-A/CSTC-A is funded through several ways but it is not appropriate to discuss the detail of this funding and how it is allocated."
Many of the men took sightseeing detours through Washington, where they posed for photos wearing cowboy hats in front of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which more than one referred to as the Washington Tower. Facebook photos show that at least one of the men appeared to have taken a short-time job at a hotel or conference center while in Washington.
At least three others spent time in Arizona, where they took photos at the Grand Canyon.
At least 26 of the Afghan deserters are linked directly or through friends to one another on Facebook. Many of their online profiles feature group photos featuring other AWOL Afghans who deserted from DLI over the course of five years — men who did not attend DLI at the same time but who appear to have become friends after settling in Canada.
Prior to July 23, 2009, Afghan military dissenters could apply for refugee status the minute they set foot in Canada.
One of them, Sardar Ahmadi, said in phone interview with FoxNews.com last month that he and Mohammad Zaher Aetimady, his friend and classmate at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), left Lackland together after graduating from the program in January 2009. “I applied for immigration, for study,” he said. “We finished the school, we came to Canada as refugee”
At the time, citizens from Afghanistan who arrived at the Canada-U.S. border were eligible to make a refugee claim in Canada, based on an exception to the 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement, which compelled refugee claimants arriving in North America to seek refugee status in the "first" safe country — either the U.S. or Canada — they reached.
Many of the Afghans who deserted from DLI entered Canada while the exception was in effect. But on July 23, 2009, the exception was revoked, and now any Afghan who tries to claim refugee status in Canada after leaving the U.S. is supposed to be turned back.
Since then, sources with knowledge of the process told FoxNews.com, some of the Afghan deserters have relied on the help of a Iranian cabdriver who shuttles across the Canadian border at a specific checkpoint and will sneak someone across the border in his trunk for $400. Sources say the network of former AWOL Afghans and their supporters know how to get in contact with this taxi driver. Those sources also believe he makes round-trips and smuggles people into the U.S. as well.
An FBI spokesman, when asked to comment on the Iranian taxi driver, told FoxNews.com, “I don’t have any particular knowledge of this and have nothing further at this time.”
Patrizia Giolti, spokeswoman for Canadian Border Services Agency, said in an email statement to FoxNews.com, “The CBSA works closely with domestic and international partners to combat irregular migration to Canada, including smuggling and trafficking in persons.” Citing Canada's Privacy Act, she said she could not answer questions about specific individuals or cases.
Twenty-Five Afghan military members remain unaccounted for, NATO officials have told FoxNews.com, citing data provided to them by the Department of Homeland Security. But sources at DLI and Lackland say they don’t know the whereabouts of only five of the AWOL Afghans: Ahmad Sameer Samar; Bahram Mohmand; Abdullahad Ahadi; Javed Aryan; and Mirza Gul Neshat.
But at least three of those five have put themselves on Facebook with no apparent concern for law enforcement searching for them.
One Afghan’s journey north is well documented through photos posted on his Facebook profile. On Sept. 15, 2008, after graduating from DLI, Matiullah Mahdi began International Captains Career Courses at Arizona’s Fort Huachuca, home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and the U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command. U.S. Army spokesman Christopher Garver told FoxNews.com:
"Capt. Mahdi failed to return for training after the 2008 Holiday Exodus leave program (18 DEC 08- 4 JAN 09). His leave form stated that he was going to spend his leave in Tucson, Ariz. He was reported as unaccounted for to the battalion commander (Lt. Col. Richard M. Monnard at the time) on 5 JAN 09. He was declared AWOL. AWOL reports were sent through the U.S. Army chain of command, U.S. Army Security Assistance channels, Fort Huachuca Provost Marshall, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"All of the training that Capt. Mahdi received while in the U.S. for training was at the UNCLASSIFIED level. At no time did he have any access to any classified or sensitive information. He was assigned to Company A, 304th MI Bn."
A photo uploaded to Mahdi's Facebook profile, timestamped March 19, 2009, shows him still in Arizona, visiting the Grand Canyon. A photo timestamped May 31, 2009, shows him in Toronto. He lists his current employer as the Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center.
Those who make it to Canada find jobs at establishments that include a supermarket, a Subway sandwich shop, and often in hotels doing housekeeping.
But life as a deserter isn’t always easy. One Afghan, Naqibullah Mayar, wrote to a friend:
"I am not as good as you man, Just surviving and hardly making living."
At least two Afghan deserters spent time in Arizona and may still be living there. In May, one wrote on Facebook that he was going to visit another AWOL Afghan who was living in Arizona. Of the five unaccounted for Afghan military members, at least three are believed to be still living in the U.S, according to diplomatic and Air Force officials.
And there could be more. While Sardar Ahmadi said he was in Toronto, his secondary Facebook profile — the one to which he posted photos of his DLI graduation ceremony — lists his current location as “Davenport, Iowa.”
When FoxNews.com asked him why, in a Facebook message, Ahmadi abruptly "defriended" the reporter.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement declined to comment.
The Department of Defense and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not return requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Kelli Morgan and Ahmad Shuja.