Afghan Pilot Says He's Been Told to Rejoin Air Force or Leave US Protection

Afghan air force student pilot Lt. Naihim Asadi.
Afghan air force student pilot Lt. Naihim Asadi receives final instructions before his solo flight in a MD-530 helicopter, Oct. 16, 2012 at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Quinton Russ)

An Afghan major under U.S. protection at a U.S. base after the Pentagon reversed its decision to approve his move to the United States, said he has been told he will be forced to leave the base Monday if he does not rejoin the Afghan air force.   

Maj. Mohammed Naiem Asadi, one of the Afghan military's few elite attack helicopter pilots, his wife, and his 4-year-old daughter had been approved to seek refuge in America in early October due to being in "imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban," approval documents and emails shared with Stars and Stripes showed.  

The Pentagon, which had endorsed Asadi's bid to come to America, changed its decision and withdrew its endorsement in early November, leaving the major fearing both violence by the Taliban and retribution from the Afghan air Force for applying for asylum. 

The Afghan government has threatened to jail pilots in the past for attempting to gain asylum in other countries, said Kimberly Motley, Asadi's lawyer. Motley represented another Afghan pilot, Niloofar Rahmani, who received asylum in America in 2016 after receiving death threats from the Taliban. 

Motley, in a letter to U.S. officials, stated she is "extremely concerned" the major will be imprisoned and separated from his family if he is turned over to the Afghan government.  

For the last month, the 32-year-old Asadi and his family have been living under U.S. military protection.    

But U.S. and Afghan military officers Sunday afternoon told Asadi that if he does not rejoin the Afghan air force, he will be forced to leave the base, Asadi said.    

U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and NATO Resolute Support referred comment to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which did not immediately reply to an email inquiry and a phone call.

The Afghan Defense Ministry wants to assure Asadi that it is committed to providing him safety, according to Fawad Aman, the ministry's deputy spokesman, adding no further details.  

Asadi said he doubts the Afghan government's ability and willingness to protect him, as the country suffers a wave of assassinations by the Taliban. Families of several of the country's elite pilots told Stars and Stripes in 2018 that their loved ones did not receive adequate protection by the government before being killed. 

The major 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.  

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

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.

Asadi applied to come to the U.S. under Significant Public Benefit Parole, a temporary status for noncitizens in need of protection. He then passed several background checks, with a U.S. military contractor confirming the authenticity of the Taliban death threats he received.   

Risks to Afghan pilots from the Taliban dramatically increase once it's known they are applying for a visa to leave the country, Motley said.   

"It is also quite clear that the Afghan government cannot (or will not) protect the Asadi family from the Taliban," Motley said in her letter. "They simply do not have the capacity or ability."    

Asadi said Sunday he is concerned with what may happen to him and his family should they leave the base.   

"It's very scary for me," Asadi said. "My wife, she knows too. She is very sad, she didn't eat lunch or breakfast; we didn't sleep last night. It's a very bad situation."   

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.    

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