It is not often that the United States Government becomes involved in a family law lawsuit. But the one who decides on the adoption – or kidnapping, according to the versions – by a military family of the Afghan girl known in her country as R., in the United States as L., is not a normal process. The Biden Administration supports the return of the four-year-old girl to her Afghan family and argues that the case represents serious damage to the country’s international prestige. Especially in Afghanistan, where her image is already badly damaged after the withdrawal of her forces two years ago, and where the perception about the case is that “an American soldier stole a Muslim girl.”
It all started on September 5, 2019. That night, a group of US Marines surrounded a home in an Afghan village where they suspected foreign fighters were operating. A shootout began. A man and a woman with a baby came into his sights. He was wearing a bomb vest and blew it up. She, wounded, began to move; The soldiers feared another attack and shot her down. Only the baby remained, a two-month-old girl, with a fractured skull, a broken leg and second-degree burns on her head and neck. The military took her to her base in Bagram, on the outskirts of Kabul, for treatment. Conjectures immediately began about what to do with her.
Major Joshua Mast had not participated in the assault, but he, like the rest of the base, soon heard about the case. This military member of the legal corps, briefly stationed in Afghanistan, father of four children, fervent Christian, educated at the very conservative Liberty University of preacher Jerry Falwell and with contacts in the Donald Trump Administration, immediately called his wife, Stephanie. They both agreed: they should adopt the little girl.
Mast began to pull strings in the United States. In Virginia, the state where she resided, she commissioned her brother Richard Dela – a lawyer for a conservative Christian organization also linked to Liberty University – to formally request the adoption of the girl. According to her version, the baby was the daughter of foreign fighters, she had been left alone in the world, she needed medical care that did not exist in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government denied jurisdiction over her. A court in rural Fluvanna County determined, 7,000 kilometers away from the girl, that L. was stateless and granted custody of her to the military officer and his wife. In 2021, the same judge formalized her adoption permanently.
Afghan girls cover their faces while playing on swings in Kabul in 2019.Mohammad Ismail (REUTERS)
But things were not as Mast had described them, as alleged by the Department of Justice in a series of confidential documents to which the AP agency has had access. The baby was not stateless, but Afghan by birth and family; The Afghan government had not renounced its jurisdiction and the adoption order “was obtained by the Masts fraudulently, knowingly presenting false arguments before the Virginia courts,” the institution notes. The State Department considered, in diplomatic cables included in the court case, that the military officer’s request “suffered from serious defects.”
While the baby was recovering, Afghan officials located the little girl’s relatives. When she left the hospital, the girl – now R., because of the name her parents had given her at birth – was left in the custody of one of her cousins and her wife, newly married, who welcomed her with enthusiasm. For 18 months they became a family.
The oldest and his wife did not give up their efforts. Through a lawyer in Kabul, they contacted the guardians of the girl, almost completely recovered from her injuries, to ask them to send her to the United States, arguing that they wanted to offer her medical treatment altruistically. Never – say these relatives, identified in court documents with the generic name of John and Jane Doe – did the Masts ever reveal to them that they had an adoption order in Virginia.
With the fall of Kabul in August 2021, this Afghan family left the country on one of the military flights authorized by the United States from the capital’s airport. In part, his departure was possible through the recommendation of the military man, who described John Doe as a man who had put his life and that of his family at risk to help the United States. The major “falsely indicated to other soldiers that he had everything in order to bring the girl,” according to the Department of Justice.
After being temporarily installed on a military base, Mast went to visit John and Jane accompanied by his brother. With the court order of adoption in hand, he took the girl, then already two years old. The federal officials present were unaware that the State Department had already deemed that order defective. The Afghan adoptive parents, who have since had another natural daughter, have only seen R. in a photograph. Jane fell into a depression due to the absence of the little girl.
Now settled in Texas, they filed a lawsuit to accuse the Masts of kidnapping and demand that the little girl be returned to them. The American family’s lawyers assure that the soldier and his wife acted in good faith and have made an effort, at “great sacrifice and personal expense,” to protect R. and “offer him a home full of love.”
In March, Judge Claude Worrell declared the adoption void, but left the girl 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, and examines, among other aspects, the possible improper use and retention of classified documentation, an infantry officer from Marine. President Joe Biden’s Administration argues that the delays in the case and the “narrative that a US soldier stole a Muslim baby” damage the image of the United States in the world and, above all, in Afghanistan.
“The perception that the United States is a place where Afghan children can be torn from their families, over their protests, without effective recourse, increases these risks,” indicates a State Department statement cited by AP, “to the detriment of American foreign policy interests.”
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