Fifteen minutes before closing time on Saturday night, the telephone rang at Zachary’s Pub in Mashpee, a club featuring “all-nude” women, Keno, and $4 beers. An anxious-sounding security official from Camp Edwards wanted to know whether anyone had spotted three soldiers from Afghanistan.
“He said: ‘We’re missing three people. They didn’t show back up. Are they at your place?’ ” club owner Richard Halpern recalled Tuesday. “Which I thought was very strange.”
The men were in the United States to take classes in handling emergencies, but vanished Saturday after an off-duty trip to a shopping mall. They showed up Monday at the northern US border trying to cross into Canada, and on Tuesday, the details of their 500-mile journey remained a mystery perhaps to all but federal officials jailing them in upstate New York, where the men are facing deportation.
An Afghan diplomat said Tuesday that their motives for fleeing are unclear, but said the men posed no threat to the United States. The official described them as middle-ranking soldiers who passed a strict security clearance to come to the United States.
“There is not any threat whatsoever,” said Meerwais Nab, minister counselor for political and security matters at the embassy in Washington. He added: “They are officers. They were part of a security team here. They are normal people.”
Nab said Afghan consular officers had not been able to speak with the men by Tuesday afternoon, but they were trying to “facilitate their safe return” to Afghanistan, just as they did with two Afghan police officers who vanished from Drug Enforcement Administration training in Virginia earlier this month.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Major Jan Mohammad Arash, Captain Mohammad Nasir Askarzada, and Captain Noorullah Aminyar are in federal immigration custody in Batavia, N.Y.
“They are being charged with administrative immigration violations and placed into removal proceedings,” said Shawn Neudauer, spokesman for ICE, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration officials did not elaborate on the charges.
In a report this year, the State Department called Afghanistan “extremely dangerous,” particularly for security forces, 13 years after the US invasion and during a recently deadlocked presidential election that was resolved Sunday. Car bombs, kidnappings, and organized crime related to the opium trade are constant threats. Even traffic is a nightmare: the capital, Kabul, has only a few working traffic lights, and potholed streets with no marked lanes.
“They are not ordinary Afghans,” Nab said of the soldiers. “They are part of the Afghan government who are facing and fighting the Taliban on a daily basis. . . . It’s a big danger.”
The soldiers, who range in age from their 20s to late 40s, had flown to the United States earlier this month for a weeklong training exercise at Camp Edwards, a part of Joint Base Cape Cod. The program, which ends Wednesday, assembled 200 military personnel and other participants from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, and Pakistan.
Lieutenant Colonel James Sahady of the Massachusetts National Guard, which is hosting the training program, said the participants spent time in classrooms learning to plan emergency responses and work with civilian groups to stabilize their homelands. He said none were involved in any shooting exercises.
During time off, participants took short trips to experience American culture. Often chaperones went along, because many of the participants are not fluent in English.
Thursday, they went to Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store. Friday, they toured Falmouth.
Reportedly that night, the three soldiers were in a group that went to Zachary’s, about 5 miles from Camp Edwards, where they were staying. Sahady said he could not confirm that the men went to the strip club or that the base later called Zachary’s to find them.
However, Sahady said the three men left the base Saturday with about 50 others in two small school buses to tour Craigville Beach and the Cape Cod Mall in Hyannis. Some stopped for ice cream. Others went shopping. When they assembled for the bus ride back, the three men were missing.
On Monday, after the soldiers were detained at the Canadian border, Halpern said his phone starting ringing off the hook. A DJ and two dancers said the men had been at Zachary’s Pub on Friday night. Halpern alerted Mashpee police Chief Rodney Collins, who confirmed the report to the Globe.
“I assume they were looking at naked women, but that’s pure speculation,” Collins said.
Some have speculated that the soldiers would apply for asylum in the United States, but that remained unclear Tuesday. US immigration courts declined to provide information about their hearings.
Federal records show that a little more than 100 Afghans received asylum here last year.
Nab, at the Afghan Embassy, said he expected the soldiers would return home.
“They are enrolled in the army with a commitment to do this,” he said. “This is their job.”