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Decorated Afghan pilot who protected US airmen is in hiding after Pentagon reverses approval to come to US

In a screenshot from a 2017 NATO Resolute Support video, then-Capt. Mohammad Naiem Asadi talks about flying helicopters for the Afghan Air Force. Now a major, Asadi and his family had been approved to come to the U.S. for their protection until the Pentagon reversed its endorsement of their exit.

RESOLUTE SUPPORT/DVIDS

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 7, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan – A helicopter pilot reputed to have killed more Taliban than anyone else in the Afghan air force is in hiding after the Pentagon reversed its decision to approve his move to the United States.

In early October, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and the Defense Department approved Maj. Mohammed Naiem Asadi’s request to seek refuge in America, along with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, because they were in “imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban,” approval documents and emails shared with Stars and Stripes show.

But on Oct. 28, just hours before they were to about to leave, Asadi was told plans had changed. He would learn the Pentagon had withdrawn its endorsement.

The Pentagon had indeed approved Asadi’s application to seek refuge in America, said a DOD official who could not be named due to not being authorized to comment on the case. The military changed its stance after a few senior leaders had objected that this decision had been made without their approval, the official said.

The U.S. military on Friday confirmed it had pulled its support for Asadi and his family.

“The appropriate officials determined that DoD could not support the request,” Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

The Pentagon’s reversal shocked one of the military officers who vouched for Asadi and had promised to host the pilot and his family upon arrival.

“The family was about to travel to the U.S. in good faith, that they had followed the proper process, and been approved,” said Bryan P. McAlister, a former Army pilot who was Asadi’s advisor. “Who is going to finally do the right thing, and let them come to the United States, where the American people are ready to receive and care for them?”

Asadi said there is no way he can return to his old life out of fear of both the Taliban and retribution from the Afghan government.

The 32-year-old flier is said to have killed more Taliban than any other pilot in the Afghan Air Force during thousands of flight hours, Afghan and U.S. military officers told Stars and Stripes.

Asadi protected an American pilot who crashed his A-29 Super Tucano attack turboprop in northern Afghanistan this summer, said a letter of commendation signed by Air Force Capt. Robert V. Yost.

Asadi led a flight of two MD-530 attack helicopters that scrambled to protect the crash site in Taliban-contested territory, and Asadi’s efforts were vital to the pilot’s rescue, Yost wrote.

“The incident was just one of countless events where Maj. Asadi’s actions have protected and saved lives,” he wrote.

But for all his heroics in the air, Asadi and his family faced threats at home. Among several threatening letters and phone calls was one this spring, in which the Taliban demanded Asadi’s father hand over his son, or his entire family would be killed.

Asadi applied to come to the U.S. under Significant Public Benefit Parole, a temporary status for noncitizens in need of protection. He hoped to apply for asylum, which can take years, while safely in the United States.

Documents show he passed several background checks, and on Oct. 5, the Pentagon endorsed his application.

“Applicant and his family are in imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban,” said the document, signed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Ezra Cohen. “Threat to applicant is directly related to faithful execution of the job he was trained, equipped and advised by the U.S. to do.”

But the day he was supposed to leave, Asadi said his appointment at the U.S. Embassy was canceled. No reason was given.

He then received a phone call from the Afghan air force’s commander, demanding Asadi report to his office. He hadn’t told his command he applied to an U.S. program to leave the country.

He did not report, concerned he could be deemed a deserter by those who didn’t know or care that he was applying through official channels, and fearing that he would be thrown in prison among the Taliban.

He learned later the Pentagon had placed his case on hold, before withdrawing the endorsement.

“We were the ones who raised our hands and said, ‘we’re not quite sure we checked all the boxes when we endorsed this thing,’” the defense official said. “We don’t want to be put into a position of facilitating the departure of an active duty Afghan military officer.”

Asadi is now somewhere in Afghanistan under U.S. protection. His young daughter has adapted well to life in hiding, he said, but for him and his wife, the disappointment and uncertainty have been overwhelming.

“I cannot go backward,” Asadi said. “And I cannot go forward, because I am not allowed to go forward.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

Afghan pilot Maj. Mohammad Naiem Asadi receives final instructions before a solo flight in a MD-530 helicopter, Oct. 16, 2012 at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan. Asadi and his family had been approved to come to the U.S. for their protection until the Pentagon reversed its endorsement of their exit.
U.S. AIR FORCE