Afghan war orphan remains with Marine accused of abduction

The Afghan woman ran down the street towards her friend’s apartment as soon as she heard the news: the White House had publicly weighed in on her family’s case.

Surely her child, who she says was abducted by a U.S. Marine more than a year ago, would now be returned, she thought. She was so excited that it was only after she arrived that she realized she wasn’t wearing any shoes.

“We thought within one week she’d be back to us,” the woman told The Associated Press.

<p>Hundreds of people gather Aug. 16, 2021, near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.</p>

Shekib Rahmani, Associated Press

Hundreds of people gather Aug. 16, 2021, near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Yet two months after an AP report on the high-stakes legal fight over the child raised alarms at the highest levels of government, from the White House to the Taliban, the toddler remains with U.S. Marine Corps Major Joshua Mast and his family.

The Masts claim in court documents that they legally adopted the child and that the Afghan couple’s accusations are “outrageous” and “unmerited.”

“We are all concerned with the well being of this child who is at the heart of this matter,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre after the AP detailed the child’s plight in October.

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion to intervene in the legal wrangling over the fate of the child, arguing that Mast’s adoption should never have been granted.

The government said Mast’s attempts to take the child directly conflicted with a U.S. foreign policy decision to reunite the orphan with her Afghan family. They asked that the case be moved from a rural Virginia court to federal court, but were denied by Presiding Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore.

Additionally, federal authorities say investigations are underway.

“We all just want resolution for this child, whatever it’s going to be, so her childhood doesn’t continue to be in limbo,” said Samantha Freed, a court-appointed attorney assigned to look after the best interests of the child. “We need to get this right now. There are no do-overs.”

The legal fight has taken more than a year, and Freed is worried it could take months — maybe even years — more. The child is now 3½ years old.

The Afghan family spoke with the AP on condition of remaining anonymous out of fear for their safety and concerns for their relatives back in Afghanistan.

Mast became enchanted with the child while on temporary assignment in Afghanistan in late 2019. Just a few months old, the infant had survived a Special Operations raid that killed her parents and five siblings, according to court records.

As she recovered from injuries in a U.S. military hospital, the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross identified her relatives, and through meetings with the State Department, arranged for their reunification.

The child’s cousin and his wife — young newlyweds without children yet of their own — wept when they first saw her, they said: Taking her in and raising her was the greatest honor of their lives.

Nonetheless, Mast — in spite of orders from military officials to stop intervening — was determined to take her home to the United States. He used his status in the military, appealed to connections in the Trump administration and convinced the small-town Virginia court to skip some of the usual safeguards that govern international adoptions.

Finally, when the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last summer, he helped the family get to the United States. After they arrived, they say, he took their baby from them at the Fort Pickett Virginia Army National Guard base. They haven’t seen her since and are suing to get her back.

The Afghan woman gave birth to a daughter just weeks after the girl they’d been raising was taken from them. Every time they buy an outfit or a present for their daughter, they buy a second matching one for the child they pray will come back to them soon.

The Masts did not respond to requests for an interview. Stepping out from a recent hearing, Joshua Mast told AP they’ve been advised not to speak publicly.

In court filings, Mast says he acted “admirably” to bring the child to the United States and care for her with his wife. They said they gave her “a loving home” and have “done nothing but ensure she receives the medical care she requires, at great personal expense and sacrifice.”

Mast celebrated his adoption of the child, whose Afghan family is Muslim, as an act of Christian faith.

The toddler’s future is now set to be decided in a sealed, secret court case in rural Virginia — in the same courthouse that granted Mast custody. The federal government has described that custody order as “unlawful,” “improper” and “deeply flawed and incorrect” because it was based on a promise that Afghanistan would waive jurisdiction over the child, which never happened.

The day Mast and his wife Stephanie Mast were granted a final adoption, the child was 7,000 miles away with the Afghan couple who knew nothing about it.

In court, Mast, still an active duty Marine, cast doubt on whether the Afghan couple is related to her at all. They argue that the little girl is “an orphan of war and a victim of terrorism, rescued under tragic circumstances from the battlefield.” They say she is a “stateless minor” because she was recovered from a compound Mast said was used by foreign fighters not from Afghanistan.

The case has been consumed by a procedural question: Does the Afghan family — who raised the child for a year and a half — have a right under Virginia law to even challenge the adoption?

Judge Moore ruled in November that the Afghan family does have legal standing; the Masts’ appeal is under review.

The child’s Afghan relatives, currently in Texas, believe the U.S. government should be doing more to help them because federal agencies were involved in the ordeal.

“The government is not doing their job as they should,” said the Afghan woman. “And in this process, we are suffering.”