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Legendary Afghan air force pilot in hiding after U.S. reverses decision to help him flee Taliban

  • Author: Alex Horton, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 3, 2020
  • Published December 3, 2020

Maj. Naiem Asadi was already in his attack helicopter over Kabul when the call blared over the radio: Militants were raining down mortars near the presidential compound, and someone needed to find them.

Asadi, one of the most experienced pilots in the Afghan air force, whirled his MD-530 aircraft to scan the horizon and spotted the telltale plume of white smoke. He raked the area with a burst of rockets, killing the fighters during the 2018 mission, he said in an interview.

His actions were featured in a video by the U.S.-led coalition eager to highlight skilled Afghan troops. But the exposure helped the Taliban mark him for death. U.S. officials granted his request to flee to the United States but reversed their decision hours before he was to depart - leaving Asadi wondering who will track him down first.

“I found a house to hide from the Afghan government and the Taliban,” Asadi, 32, said by phone from an undisclosed location, where he has been sheltering with his 4-year-old daughter and wife after weeks of refuge at a U.S. base came to an end.

The episode, first reported by Stars and Stripes, has rallied former U.S. pilots who worked with Asadi. They said U.S. officials turned their back on him after a career that includes saving the lives of American pilots and have urged lawmakers in their states to focus on the issue. They have pledged spare bedrooms, jobs and money in hope that Asadi will be allowed to move.

The pilots describe Asadi as a talented aviator who has killed more militants than anyone else in the Afghan air force. His precision and willingness to fly in dangerous missions is so well known that commanders request his support by name, said Bryan McAlister, a former Army pilot who advised Asadi.

That reputation, and U.S. highlights of his work, has drawn the eye of insurgents, Asadi said, adding that his father received a letter demanding that he give up his son or face retribution.

The letter was among evidence that Asadi used to appeal to the United States, circumventing Afghan channels, he said.

Asadi is in “imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban,” according to documents signed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Ezra Cohen-Watnick on Oct. 5 that were obtained by The Washington Post. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) subsequently approved Asadi’s request to relocate to the United States, emails show.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul told Asadi to pick up travel documents Oct. 28 but emailed him three hours before his appointment to say they were not ready. He fled to a U.S. base in Kandahar on the advice of a friend in the U.S. military, which days later told him the Pentagon reversed its recommendation to USCIS.

A U.S. defense official said the approval was paused, then revoked, after it became clear that some Pentagon officials who would need to approve the recommendation had not been consulted.

“He’s an active-duty Afghan officer. It’s an issue for the Afghan government to work out,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The move stunned the U.S. pilots close to him.

“That’s cowardice to me,” McAlister said of the Pentagon reversal. “He completely walked away from his life because of their promises. There are real human beings on the other end of that decision.”

Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Asadi is in good standing but that the Defense Department “could not support the request” after a full review.

Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said the agency is committed to protecting Asadi and his family, along with other pilots. The agency declined to comment on whether Afghan officials had a role in the decision.

After the reversal, Asadi said he was ordered to visit the Afghan air force commander. He refused to report back for duty because he did not have confidence in the government and feared jail as punishment for leaving his unit, he said.

Instead, he fled to the U.S. base in Kandahar in November, where he stayed for weeks until U.S. officials forced him to leave. He went into hiding Monday.

USCIS and the State Department declined to comment on their decision.

Asadi is not the only Afghan service member facing threats, former Afghan and U.S. pilots have acknowledged. But they also point to Asadi’s record, saying he has done enough. In July, he led a mission to recover a U.S. pilot who crashed near Taliban territory, providing security as a rescue helicopter arrived, a commendation said.

Rafael Caraballo, a retired U.S. Army pilot who trained Asadi in 2012, said it was futile to keep him in the country.

“He’s marked as a dead man. He has done all he can there,” Carabello said, echoing other pilots who say Asadi would be a hard-working American if given the opportunity.

“If anyone needs to be a U.S. citizen, it’s him,” Caraballo said.

Forcing him back into the cockpit would be unsafe, said Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first female military fixed-wing aircraft pilot, who also endured threats and was granted asylum in 2018.

Pilots can make mistakes if they’re distracted or stressed, she said, putting civilians and other aviators at risk. The Afghan government would also generally fail to keep him safe, she said, like other pilots she knew who were assassinated.

Asadi said that it was a grave cultural violation to take his family to a U.S. base, and that he cannot envision a future in Afghanistan free of violence from the Taliban and neighbors alike.

“It is too late. There is no going back,” he said. “We still hope the U.S. government keeps its promise to send me there.”

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The Washington Post’s Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.