US fights to stop soldier from keeping Afghan war orphan

Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife (AP)
Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife (AP)

The US government has warned a Virginia judge that allowing an American Marine to keep an Afghan war orphan as his child risks violating international law.

Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife were accused of abducting the baby girl after her entire family was killed in a US special forces raid.

The couple adopted the child after the now-four-year-old arrived in Washington DC with her cousin and his wife from Afghanistan for medical treatment in August 2021, two years after the child was first rescued by US troops.

But the US government has now warned that the decision to allow the Masts to keep the child could be viewed around the world as “endorsing an act of international child abduction,” according to secret court records seen by The Associated Press.

The Justice Department was particularly scathing in its assessment of how Marine Major Mast and his wife convinced a Virginia judge to sign off on the adoption of the girl, who has been in their custody since 2021.

Citing a litany of “falsehoods,” the Justice Department wrote that the court relied on “intentional misrepresentations” from the Marine and skipped critical safeguards to protect children being brought to the United States.

“The grave harm that the Masts have inflicted upon the Child, her family, and the United States is ongoing,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in the court documents, which included signed declarations from State and Defense department officials. “Most troublingly, the child remains with the Masts to this day.”

The girl’s Afghan relatives are now suing to get her back, and alleged in court filings that in August 2021, the Masts lured them to the US under false pretenses and took custody of her without their permission.

The Masts have denied the claims, stating they had been upfront about their intentions and only wanted what was best for the girl.

Major Mast, who was on a short assignment as an attorney in Afghanistan, met the baby in a US military hospital and became determined to bring her home.

In earlier court filings, Major Mast´s attorneys wrote that the Marine 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.”

Virginia law requires that whoever has physical custody of a child be given an opportunity to be heard in an adoption case. But the Virginia court failed to notify the US government of Mr Mast’s custody petition, the Justice Department argued.

At the time, the baby was in the custody of the US government, being treated at a military hospital in Kabul. The Afghan government was tracking down relatives, a State Department official wrote, and found an uncle who reported that the girl’s father, a farmer, had been slain in the raid, along with his wife and five other children.

US Marine Corp Major Joshua Mast, center, talks with his attorneys (Copyright 2023 the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)
US Marine Corp Major Joshua Mast, center, talks with his attorneys (Copyright 2023 the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)

The documents reveal for the first time that concern about Mast’s actions — and the court’s decisions — reached the highest levels of the Trump administration. When the US Embassy in February 2020 was working with the Afghan government to unite the child with her surviving relatives, Mr Mast tried unsuccessfully to stop them, claiming the Afghan family was not biologically related.

The Red Cross took her to the Afghan family, who wept when they met her, according to a State Department declaration attached to the court filings. A young newlywed couple, the child’s cousin and his wife, raised her for the next 18 months.

The family told the AP that Major Mast tracked them down and tried to convince them to send the child to the United States by promising medical care. They said they refused to go along with the plan; they didn’t want to be separated from the girl, who appeared to have fully recovered from a fractured skull, broken leg and serious burns.

Later, in the summer of 2021, when US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban took over, Mr Mast reiterated his offer of assistance, “misleading” the couple into believing the child would receive specialised medical treatment, the Justice Department wrote. Mr 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 Afghans arrived at a refugee resettlement camp in Virginia, the Justice Department wrote, Mr Mast presented the adoption order to federal employees, who didn’t know that the US government had already deemed his claim to the girl to be flawed. Unwittingly, those employees helped Mast take custody of the child, and she’s been with him ever since.

Mr Mast is assigned to the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and the agency is fully cooperating with federal law enforcement investigations, according to a spokesperson.