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The custody battle for a young Afghan girl: Was she adopted or abducted by a US family?

The child, whose biological parents died in a U.S. raid, remains in the custody of an American military family, despite the fact that a court declared the adoption void and her relatives are asking for her return

Marine Corps Major Joshua Mast and his wife, Stephanie, arrive at a courthouse in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, in March of this year.
Marine Corps Major Joshua Mast and his wife, Stephanie, arrive at a courthouse in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, in March of this year.Cliff Owen (AP)
Macarena Vidal Liy

It is not often that the United States government becomes involved in a family lawsuit. But the dispute over the adoption of a young Afghan girl by a U.S. military family is no ordinary case. Relatives of the four-year-old — who is identified as R. in Afghanistan and as L. in the United States — claim she was kidnapped, not adopted. The Biden administration supports her return to her family, arguing that the case could further damage America’s reputation in Afghanistan, which was hit hard after the U.S. decided to withdraw troops in 2021. In Afghanistan, the prevailing story is that a “U.S. servicemember stole a Muslim child.”

It all started on September 5, 2019. That night, a group of U.S. Marines surrounded a house in an Afghan village where they suspected foreign fighters were operating. A shootout ensued. A man and a woman with a baby emerged. The man was wearing a bomb vest and detonated it. The woman, who was wounded, began to move but was shot down by soldiers, who feared another attack. The only survivor was the baby, a two-month-old girl, with a fractured skull, a broken leg and second-degree burns to her head and neck. The military took her back to their base in Bagram, on the outskirts of Kabul, for treatment. Questions quickly arose about what to do with her.

Marine Corps Major Joshua Mast, who was briefly stationed in Afghanistan, had not taken part in the raid, but he — like the rest of the base — soon heard about the case. Mast was a father of four and a fervent Christian, who was educated at the very conservative Liberty University of preacher Jerry Falwell. After hearing about the case, Mast immediately called his wife, Stephanie. They both agreed: they should adopt the little girl.

Mast, who had contacts in the Donald Trump administration, began to pull strings in the United States. In Virginia, the state where he lived, he asked his brother Richard, a lawyer for a conservative Christian organization also linked to Liberty University, to formally request the girl’s adoption. According to the Masts, the baby was the “stateless” daughter of foreign fighters and had no living relatives. The family claims she needed medical care that was not available in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government intended to waive jurisdiction over her case. A court in rural Fluvanna County, over 4,300 miles away, determined that she was stateless and granted the Masts custody of her. In 2021, the same judge formalized the couple as the child’s permanent legal guardians.

Afghan girls cover their faces while playing on swings in Kabul in 2019.
Afghan girls cover their faces while playing on swings in Kabul in 2019.Mohammad Ismail (REUTERS)

But according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the situation was not as the Masts had made it seem. In a series of confidential documents, accessed by the AP news agency, the DOJ alleged that the baby was not stateless, but Afghan by birth and family. The Afghan government did not relinquish its claim over her, and the orders “were obtained fraudulently by the Masts, who knowingly made false representations before the Virginia courts,” the Justice Department wrote. In a diplomatic cable included in the court case, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the officer’s custody order as “flawed in a number of respects.”

While the baby was recovering from her injuries, Afghan officials located her relatives. Upon leaving the hospital, the girl was left in the custody of one of her cousins and his wife, who warmly welcomed the child. For 18 months they were a family.

But the major and his wife did not give up their fight for the child. Through a lawyer in Kabul, they contacted the guardians of the girl, who had almost completely recovered from her injuries, and asked them to send her to the United States, arguing that they wanted to offer her specialized medical treatment. At no point, say the girl’s relatives — identified as John and Jane Doe in the court documents — did the Masts reveal that they had a custody order in Virginia.

With the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Afghan family left the country on one of the military flights authorized by the United States from the capital’s airport. They were able to flee partly thanks to the major, who described John Doe as a man who had put his life and that of his family at risk to help the United States. Mast helped arrange a Defense Department evacuation of the Afghan family by “falsely telling other military personnel that he was clear to bring the child,” the Justice Department wrote.

When the Afghan family arrived at a refugee resettlement camp in Virginia, Mast went to visit them, accompanied by his brother, the lawyer. With the custody order in hand, he took the girl, who was two years old at that point. The federal officials present were unaware that the State Department had already deemed that order to be flawed. Since then, the girl’s Afghan family have only seen her in photographs. Jane fell into a depression after the little girl was taken.

When the Afghan couple settled in Texas, they filed a lawsuit accusing the Masts of abduction and demand that the little girl be returned to them. In court filings, the American family’s lawyers argued that the soldier and his wife acted in good faith and worked at “great personal expense and sacrifice” to protect the baby and “provide her a loving home.”

In March, Judge Claude Worrell declared the adoption void, but left the child in the Masts’ care, citing a custody order. The American family has appealed the judge’s decision.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues at Camp Lejeune, where Mast is currently stationed. According to AP, it is focusing on the alleged unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material. In the meantime, the Biden administration argued in the filings that ongoing delays and “a narrative that a U.S. servicemember stole a Muslim child” are harming America’s standing on the world stage, particularly in Afghanistan

“The perception that the United States is a place where Afghan children can be taken from their families, over their families’ objection, without effective recourse, increases those perceived risks,” a State Department official wrote in a declaration cited by AP, “to the detriment of U.S. foreign policy interests.”

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