The little girl, now 3 ½ years old, is at the center of a high-stakes tangle of at least four court cases as multiple sets of parents fight for custody of her.
WASHINGTON — The young Afghan couple raced to the airport in Kabul, clutching their baby girl close amid the chaotic withdrawal of American troops last year.
The baby had been rescued two years earlier from the rubble of a U.S. Special Forces raid that killed her parents and five siblings. After months in a U.S. military hospital, she had gone to live with her cousin and his wife, this newlywed couple. Now, the family was bound for the United States for further medical treatment, with the aid of U.S. Marine Corps attorney Joshua Mast.
When the exhausted Afghans arrived at the airport in Washington D.C. in late August 2021, Mast pulled them out of the international arrivals line and led them to an inspecting officer, according to a lawsuit they filed last month. They were surprised when Mast presented an Afghan passport for the child, the couple said. But it was the last name printed on the document that stopped them cold: Mast.
They didn’t know it, but they would soon lose their baby.
This is a story about how one U.S. Marine became fiercely determined to bring home an Afghan war orphan, and praised it as an act of Christian faith to save her. Letters, emails and documents submitted in federal filings show that he used his status in the U.S. Armed Forces, appealed to high-ranking Trump administration officials and turned to small-town courts to adopt the baby, unbeknownst to the Afghan couple raising her 7,000 miles away.
The little girl, now 3 ½ years old, is at the center of a high-stakes tangle of at least four court cases. The Afghan couple, desperate to get her back, has sued Joshua and his wife Stephanie Mast. But the Masts insist they are her legal parents and “acted admirably” to protect her. They’ve asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
The ordeal has drawn in the U.S. departments of Defense, Justice and State, which have argued that the attempt to spirit away a citizen of another country could significantly harm military and foreign relations. It has also meant that a child who survived a violent raid, was hospitalized for months and escaped the fall of Afghanistan has had to split her short life between two families, both of which now claim her.
Five days after the Afghans arrived in the U.S., they say Mast – custody papers in hand – took her away.
The Afghan woman collapsed onto the floor and pleaded with the Marine to give her baby back. Her husband said Mast had called him “brother” for months; so he begged him to act like one, with compassion. Instead, the Afghan family claims in court papers, Mast shoved the man and stomped his foot.
That was more than a year ago. The Afghan couple hasn’t seen her since.
“After they took her, our tears never stop,” the woman told The Associated Press. “Right now, we are just dead bodies. Our hearts are broken. We have no plans for a future without her. Food has no taste and sleep gives us no rest.”
PULLED FROM THE RUBBLE
The story of the baby unfolds in hundreds of pages of legal filings and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as interviews with those involved, pieced together in an AP investigation.
In a federal lawsuit filed in September, the Afghan family accuses the Masts of false imprisonment, conspiracy, fraud and assault. The family has asked the court to shield their identity out of concerns for their relatives back in Afghanistan, and they communicated with AP on the condition of remaining anonymous.
The Masts call the Afghan family’s claims “outrageous, unmerited attacks” on their integrity. They argue in court filings that they have worked “to protect the child from physical, mental or emotional harm.” They say the Afghan couple are “not her lawful parents,” and Mast’s attorney cast doubt on whether the Afghans were even related to the baby.
“Joshua and Stephanie Mast have done nothing but ensure she receives the medical care she requires, at great personal expense and sacrifice, and provide her a loving home,” wrote the Masts’ attorneys.
The baby’s identity has been kept private, listed only as Baby L or Baby Doe. The Afghan couple had given the baby an Afghan name; the Masts gave her an American one.
Originally from Florida, Joshua Mast married his wife Stephanie and attended Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia. He graduated in 2008, and got his law degree there in 2014.
In 2019, they were living with their sons in Palmyra, a small rural Virginia town, when Joshua Mast was sent on a temporary assignment to Afghanistan. Mast, then a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, was a military lawyer for the federal Center for Law and Military Operations. The U.S. Marines declined to comment publicly, along with other federal officials.
That September in 2019 was one of the deadliest months of the entire U.S. occupation in Afghanistan, with more than 110 civilians killed in the first week alone.
On Sept. 6, 2019, the U.S. attacked a remote compound.
No details about this event are publicly available, but in court documents Mast claims that classified reports show the U.S. government “sent helicopters full of special operators to capture or kill” a foreign fighter. Mast said that rather than surrender, a man detonated a suicide vest; five of his six children in the room were killed, and their mother was shot to death while resisting arrest.
Sehla Ashai and Maya Eckstein, attorneys for the Afghan couple, dispute Mast’s account. They say the baby’s parents were actually farmers, unaffiliated with any terrorist group. And they described the event as a tragedy that left two innocent civilians and five of their children dead.
Both sides agree that when the dust settled, U.S. troops pulled the badly injured infant from the rubble. The baby had a fractured skull, broken leg and serious burns.
She was about 2 months old.
Mast called the baby a “victim of terrorism.” His attorney said she “miraculously survived.”
“DO THE RIGHT THING”
The baby was rushed to a military hospital, where she was placed in the care of the Defense Department.
The International Committee of the Red Cross told AP that they began searching for her family with the Afghan government, often a plodding process in rural parts of the country where record-keeping is scant. At first, they didn’t even know the baby’s name.
Meanwhile, Mast said, he was “aggressively” advocating to get her to the U.S. Over several months, he wrote to then-Vice President Mike Pence’s office, according to exhibits filed in court. He said his colleagues in the military tried to talk to President Donald Trump about the baby during a Thanksgiving visit to Bagram Airfield. Mast also said he made four requests over two weeks to then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, asking for help to medically evacuate the baby “to be treated in a safe environment.”
The Masts were represented by Joshua’s brother Richard Mast, an attorney with the conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel, which says it is not involved in this case. None of the Masts responded to repeated requests for interviews.
In emails to military officials, Mast alleged that Pence told the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to “make every effort” to get her to the United States. Mast signed his emails with a Bible verse: “‘Live for an Audience of one, for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”
Pence’s spokesman, Marc Short, did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Embassy never heard from Pence’s office, said a Department of State official, who requested anonymity because they did not have permission to speak publicly about the situation. But they did begin getting highly unusual inquiries about the possibility of sending the baby to the U.S. The diplomats were rattled by the suggestion that the U.S. could just take her away; they believed the baby belonged to Afghanistan.
“I was aware that it may not be smooth sailing ahead, but that just made me more determined to do the right thing,” the State Department official said.
About six weeks after the baby was rescued, the U.S. Embassy called for a meeting, attended by representatives of the Red Cross, the Afghan government and the American military, including Mast. The State Department wanted to make sure everyone understood its position: Under international humanitarian law, the U.S. was obliged to do everything possible to reunite the baby with her next of kin.
At the meeting, Mast asked about adoption, the State Department official said. Attendees from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs explained that by Afghan law and custom, they had to place the baby with her biological family. If that did not work, the Afghan Children’s Court would determine a proper guardian.
The American concept of adoption doesn’t even exist in Afghanistan. Under Islamic law, a child’s bloodline cannot be severed and their heritage is sacred. Instead of adoption, a guardianship system called kafala allows Muslims to take in orphans and raise them as family, without relinquishing the child’s name or bloodline.
American adoptions from Afghanistan are rare and only possible for Muslim-American families of Afghan descent. The State Department recognizes 14 American adoptions from Afghanistan over the past decade, none in the past two years.
Yet two days after the embassy meeting, a letter was sent to U.S. officials in Kabul from Kimberley Motley, a near-celebrity American attorney in Afghanistan, the State Department official said. Motley wrote that she was representing an unnamed concerned American citizen who wished to adopt this baby. Motley declined to be interviewed by the AP.
Mast also continued his appeals to American politicians. The U.S. Embassy began hearing from Congressional staffers about the baby, and diplomats met with a military general, the official said.
The general in turn put a “gag order” on military personnel about the baby and said “no one was to advocate on her behalf,” Mast wrote in a legal filing.
But he wasn’t ready to give up.
HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD
The Masts searched for a solution halfway around the world — in rural Fluvanna County, Virginia, where they lived.
They petitioned the local Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, describing the baby as a “stateless minor recovered off the battlefield.” In early November 2019, a judge granted them legal custody. The name of this judge is not publicly available because juvenile records are sealed in Virginia.
A few days later, a certificate of foreign birth listed Joshua and Stephanie Mast as parents.
The custody order was based on the Masts’ assertion that the Afghan government — specifically now-deposed President Ashraf Ghani — intended to waive jurisdiction over the child “in a matter of days,” according to a hearing transcript. The waiver never arrived.
In an email to AP, Ghani’s former deputy chief of staff Suhrob Ahmad said there is “no record of this alleged statement of waiver of Afghan jurisdiction.” Ahmad said he and the head of the Administrative Office of the President do not remember any such request going through the court system as required.
The U.S. Embassy heard that Mast was granted custody. Military lawyers assured them that the Marine was just preparing in case Afghanistan waived jurisdiction, but would not interfere with the search for the baby’s family, according to the State Department official.
Yet all along they planned to adopt the baby, according to records obtained from the state of Virginia under a Freedom of Information Act request. Richard Mast wrote the Attorney General’s office in November 2019 that the Masts “will file for adoption as soon as statutorily possible.”
In the meantime, Joshua Mast enrolled the baby in the Defense Department health care system, made an appointment at a U.S. International Adoption Clinic and asked to have her evacuated.
Then came a surprise: The Red Cross said they’d found her family. She was about five months old.
In late 2019, Afghan officials told the U.S. Embassy that the baby’s paternal uncle had been identified, and he decided his son and daughter-in-law were best suited to take her, according to court records. They were young, educated newlyweds with no children yet of their own, and lived in a city with access to hospitals.
The young man worked in a medical office and ran a co-ed school, which is unusual in Afghanistan. His wife graduated from high school at the top of her class, and is fluent in three languages, including English. They had married for love, unlike many Afghans in arranged marriages.
Mast expressed doubts about the newly-found uncle, describing him in court records as “an anonymous person of unknown nationality” and claiming that turning the baby over to him was “inherently dangerous.” He asked the Red Cross to put him in touch, but they refused.
In emails to a U.S. military office requesting evacuation, Mast alleged that he read more than 150 pages of classified documents, and concluded the child was a “stateless minor.” Mast believed she was the daughter of transient terrorists who are citizens of no country, his attorney said. He also speculated that if reunited with her family, she could be made a child soldier or a suicide bomber, sold into sex trafficking, hit in a U.S. military strike, or stoned for being a girl.
But Afghanistan did not waver: the child was a citizen of their country.
Mast’s attorney sent the U.S. Embassy a “cease and desist” letter warning them not to hand the baby over, according to the State Department official. But on February 26, 2020, the Masts learned that the U.S. was preparing to put the baby, now nearly 8 months old, on a plane early the following morning to join her family in another Afghan city.
The Masts, represented by Richard Mast, sued the secretaries of Defense and State in a federal court in Virginia, asking for an emergency restraining order to stop them. The Masts claimed they were the baby’s “lawful permanent legal guardians.”
Within hours, four federal attorneys — two from the Justice Department and two from the U.S. Attorney’s Office — were on the phone, and Richard Mast was in Federal Judge Norman Moon’s office.
Richard Mast said the baby should not be “condemned to suffer.” He complained that the Afghan government had not conducted DNA testing to confirm the family they found was truly related to the child.
But the Justice Department attorneys said they had no right to mandate how the Afghan government vets the family, and that the Red Cross — which has reunited relatives in war zones for more than a century — had confirmed it was done properly. Further, the federal government’s attorneys described the Masts’ custody documents from state court as “unlawful,” “deeply flawed and incorrect,” and “issued on a false premise that has never happened” — that Afghanistan would waive jurisdiction.
Judge Moon asked Richard Mast: “Your client is not asking to adopt the child?”
“No sir,” Mast responded. “He wants to get her medical treatment in the United States.”
Justice Department attorneys argued that the United States must meet its international obligations. Attorney Alexander Haas put it simply: Taking another country’s citizen to the United States “would have potentially profound implications on our military and foreign affairs interests.”
Judge Moon ruled against the Masts, and the baby stayed in Afghanistan.
The next day, she was united with her biological family. The Afghan couple wept with joy.
“We didn’t think she would come back to her family alive,” said the young Afghan man. “It was the best day of our lives. After a long time, she had a chance to have a family again.”
AN EXTRA MEASURE OF TENDERNESS
As the months passed in her new home in Afghanistan, the girl loved getting henna painted on her hands and dressing up in new clothes, the Afghan couple said. She always wanted to do her new mother’s makeup, or brush her hair.
“She knew about Allah, about clothes, about the names of food,” the woman wrote.
The couple cared for her as if she was their own daughter, but with an extra measure of tenderness because of the unimaginable tragedy she’d already suffered.
“We never wanted her to feel she couldn’t have something she wanted,” said the young man.
Meanwhile, Mast continued to worry that the child was “in an objectively dangerous situation,” Richard Mast wrote in court documents. The Masts asked Kimberley Motley, the attorney, to track down the family, saying he wanted to get the child medical treatment in the U.S, Motley said in court records.
Motley contacted the Afghan family in March 2020, about a week after the baby was placed in her new home. Motley is named as a defendant in their lawsuit, but her attorney, Michael Hoernlein, told AP the claims against her are “meritless.” In court documents, Motley’s attorneys describe her role as professional and above-board, and asked that the claims against her be dismissed.
Motley had originally gone to Afghanistan in 2008 under an American-funded initiative to train local lawyers. She stayed, largely representing foreigners charged with crimes. She took on high-profile human rights cases, gave a TED Talk and wrote a book.
Over the course of a year, Motley called for updates about the child and occasionally asked for photos. In July, around the baby’s first birthday, the couple sent Motley a snapshot of the child in swim trunks, smiling and splashing in a wading pool.
At the same time, the Masts’ adoption case was still winding through the court system in Fluvanna County, Virginia. In December 2020, the state court granted the Masts a final adoption order based on the finding that the child “remains up to this point in time an orphaned, undocumented, stateless minor,” according to a federal lawsuit. Fluvanna County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Richard E. Moore did not respond to repeated requests for clarity on how the cases progressed.
International adoption lawyers were baffled.
“If you have relatives there who are saying, ‘no, no, no, we want our daughter, we want our little girl,’ it’s over,” said Irene Steffas, an adoption and immigration attorney. “There is no way the U.S. is going to get into a match with another country when it comes to a child that’s a citizen of that country.”
Karen Law, a Virginia attorney who specializes in international adoption, said state law requires an accredited agency to visit three times over six months and compile a report before an adoption can be finalized. The child must be present for the visits — but this baby was thousands of miles away.
On July 10, 2021, around the baby’s second birthday, Motley facilitated the first phone call between the Afghan couple and Joshua Mast, with the aid translator Ahmad Osmani, a Baptist pastor of Afghan descent. Mast told the Afghan couple that unless they sent the child to the United States for medical care, she could “be blind, brain damaged, and/or permanently physically disabled.”
But the Afghan man now raising her, who had worked in the medical field, did not think her burn scars, a leg injury and mysterious allergic reactions amounted to a life-altering condition in the way Mast described. The couple declined sending the baby to the United States.
The woman was pregnant, and worried about the risk of such a long flight. They said they asked Mast: Could they take the baby to Pakistan or India for treatment instead?
The answer was no, their lawsuit says. The conversations continued for months. Osmani, the translator, vouched for the Masts and described them as kind and trustworthy, according to the lawsuit, which names him as a defendant.
Osmani did not respond to requests for comment. He asked a federal judge to throw out the lawsuit, and said he never deceived anyone. He was only a “mere translator.”
His attorneys wrote: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
“LIVING IN A DARK JAIL”
In late summer 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Mast said he contacted the family to bring the baby to the U.S. “before the country collapsed.” He said he was “extremely concerned that they may not get another chance.” The couple agreed.
Mast applied for special visas for the Afghan family and for relatives of Osmani, the translator, according to court records. They characterized the Afghan couple as an escort for a “U.S. military dependent” — the baby.
In an email to U.S. officials filed in court, Mast wrote that Osmani was “very instrumental to helping a U.S. Marine…adopt an Afghan child.”
Soon, the Afghan family began their days-long journey to the U.S. Joshua Mast told them to say he was their lawyer.
“If anyone asks to talk about your documents, show them this text: I am Major Joshua Mast, USMC. I am a Judge Advocate…” Mast texted them detailed directions for how to deal with U.S. authorities, their lawsuit says.
When the family arrived in Germany for a stopover, Joshua Mast and his wife greeted them at the air force base. It was the first time they had met in person.
In Germany, the Masts visited the Afghan family’s room three times to try to get the baby to travel separately with them, “insisting that it would be easier for the toddler to enter the United States that way,” the Afghan couple recalled in their lawsuit. They refused to let the girl out of their sight.
When the Afghans finally landed in the United States, they began explaining that the child was too young to have Afghan documents. That’s when they claim Joshua Mast pulled out an Afghan passport.
Inside was the same photo of the child in the wading pool, but altered to change the background, add a shirt and smooth her hair. Mast told the Afghans to “keep quiet” about having his name on her passport, their lawsuit alleges, so it would be easier to get medical care.
The Afghan couple asked to be taken to Fort Pickett Army National Guard base, a location specified by Mast, according to the lawsuit. Thousands of Afghan refugees were temporarily housed there.
Soon after, they said, soldiers came to their room and told them they were moving. A strange woman sat in the back of the van next to a car seat, according to court records, and the baby fussed as she buckled her in.
The van pulled up to a building they didn’t recognize, where a woman who called herself a social worker said the Masts were the girl’s legal guardians. Confused and frightened, the child cried and the couple begged.
But it did no good. Mast took the baby to his car, where his wife was waiting, the lawsuit says.
In their heavily redacted response to the lawsuit, the Masts acknowledge they “took custody” of the child; they said their adoption order was valid and they did nothing wrong.
Richard Mast is also named as a defendant in the Afghan family’s lawsuit. He wrote in legal documents that his brother’s adoption of the child was “selfless;” it saved both the child, and the Afghan family fighting to get her back, “from the evils of life under the Taliban.”
The Afghan couple believed that their baby was stolen, and they immediately sought help at Fort Pickett to get her back.
“But the playing field was not level,” their attorney, Ashai, told the AP. The couple “were forced to navigate a complex and confusing system in a foreign country in which they had just arrived, after having survived the greatest trauma of their lives.”
Meanwhile, the couple says in court documents, Osmani warned them not to contact a lawyer or the authorities, and suggested that Mast might give them the baby back if they dealt directly with him.
And so they tried to maintain contact with Mast. They were also scared of him. If he could abduct their child in broad daylight, they worried he might hurt them too, their lawyers wrote in legal filings.
The Afghan woman plunged into a deep depression and, despite being nine months pregnant, stopped eating and drinking. She could not sleep. Her husband was afraid to leave her alone.
“Since we have come to America, we have not felt happiness for even one day,” the Afghan man told the AP. “We feel like we are living in a dark jail.”
His wife gave birth to a girl on October 1, 2021. The young mother’s grief became overwhelming. A month later, she considered suicide and was hospitalized.
Soon the couple sought legal help; by December 2021, the Afghan couple had asked the Fluvanna judge to reverse the adoption. But those proceedings, almost one year in, have been opaque and slow.
On Feb. 27, 2022, when the Afghan baby was 2 ½ years old, the Masts traveled to the Mennonite Christian Assembly in Fredericksburg, Ohio, to share their joy during a special church service. In a video advertising the event called “Walking in Faith,” the pastor apologized to congregants that it would not be online, because the Marine would share “very confidential, classified information.”
“Unforeseen events gave the couple an unexpected opportunity to stand up to protect innocent life,” read the program flyer. “Come hear how God’s mighty hand allowed for a remarkable deliverance.”
Pastor John Risner told the AP that the Masts had requested the service be confidential, and he didn’t want to betray their trust by disclosing any details.
All he would say is that their story is “amazing.”
NO HAPPINESS HERE
The fate of the Afghan child is now being debated in secret proceedings in a locked courtroom in the village of Palmyra, Virginia, home to about 100 people.
Earlier this month, Joshua Mast arrived at the Fluvanna County courthouse along with his wife and his brother Richard. Mast was dressed in his starched Marine uniform, holding his white and gold hat in his hand. The hearing stretched on for roughly eight hours.
The proceedings have been completely shielded from public view, mandated by presiding Judge Moore. The AP was not allowed inside the courtroom. Court clerk Tristana Treadway refused to provide even the docket number, saying she could “neither confirm nor deny” the case existed at all.
More than a dozen lawyers streamed into the courthouse, carting boxes of evidence, and each said they were forbidden from speaking.
Mast remains an active duty Marine, and has since been promoted to major. He now lives with his family in North Carolina. The Afghan toddler has been with them for more than a year.
In Texas, the Afghan couple continues to grieve the loss of the child. The baby the woman gave birth to shortly after arriving in the U.S. just turned 1. The young mother had planned to raise the girls as sisters.
“There is nothing to celebrate without her. There is no happiness here,” the Afghan man said. “We are counting the moments and days until she will come home.”
Retired Associated Press Afghanistan and Pakistan Bureau Chief Kathy Gannon, AP researcher Rhonda Shafner and AP Pentagon reporter Lolita Baldor contributed to this report.
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