‘Find Him and Kill Him’: An Afghan Pilot’s Desperate Escape

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Asadi household was up earlier than daybreak Tuesday after a fitful night time’s sleep.

They dressed rapidly in new garments purchased the day earlier than and tucked a couple of treasured belongings into two suitcases and two backpacks.

Maj. Naiem Asadi was about to make the transfer of a lifetime — one that might separate his household from their family members and the one nation they’ve ever recognized. As he and his spouse, Rahima, zipped their baggage, they frightened that unexpected obstacles would block the trail to their closing vacation spot.

The embellished Afghan Air Force helicopter pilot had been in hiding along with his spouse and daughter, Zainab, 5, for seven months. The Taliban had threatened his life, posting Major Asadi’s photograph on-line with the directions “Find him and kill him,” he stated.

On high of being a pilot, he’s Hazara, a member of an ethnic minority that has been repeatedly attacked by the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Major Asadi stated even air power commanders typically discriminated in opposition to him due to his ethnicity.

There was extra: His commanders had been livid that he had been absent with out depart since final fall. They had repeatedly ordered him to report for obligation, however he refused.

“I worried that they would never allow me to leave because then every pilot would want to go to the U.S.,” he stated in evenly accented English.

But now, Major Asadi, 32, a farmer’s son, a graduate of Afghanistan’s army officer academy, and by many accounts the Afghan Air Force’s main killer of Taliban fighters, was leaving his native nation, in all probability perpetually.

The household on the way in which to the Kabul airport.

In the pale morning gentle in Kabul, the pilot held three dark-green Afghan passports. Inside every was a full-page stamp bearing a picture of Abraham Lincoln that might carry them to the United States: “Holder has been granted parole authorization by USCIS for one year,” it learn.

An American lawyer had helped the household get hold of humanitarian parole — a little-known authorization by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to enter the United States for a 12 months — however solely after the U.S. army abruptly revoked an analogous refugee utility that was initially authorized in October, as first reported by Stars and Stripes.

Major Asadi going over some immigration paperwork with Kimberley Motley, an American human rights legal professional who helps the household to migrate.

The pilot’s utility final fall “was found to have not been fully vetted” by the Department of Defense, resulting in the division to withdraw its help, Maj. Robert Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, stated in an announcement.

The Defense Department “would have been in the position of abetting the desertion of a serving Afghan officer as Major Asadi had not informed his chain of command of his parole application,” Major Lodewick stated.

“It’s a pity. He did this to escape from serving his homeland,” stated Lt. Col. Jalaluddin Ibrahimkhel, an Afghan Air Force spokesman, including that others had been now extra prone to “make excuses and escape.”

A view of the army facet of the Kabul airport, which Mr. Asadi had by no means seen from the civilian facet.

With the Afghan Air Force struggling to help floor troops as U.S. forces withdraw air help and important flight mechanics, Major Asadi’s furtive escape raised an elemental query: If the nation’s ace assault helicopter pilot was permitted to stroll away from his publish, what had been different Afghan pilots — and different troopers — to assume?

Many pilots and troopers have been threatened by the Taliban. Most can solely dream of relocating their households to the United States.

Major Asadi conceded that his actions may undermine air power morale, however he stated he acted to guard himself and his household. He stated he ignored orders to report for obligation as a result of he feared he can be detained for desertion.

But he stated he had fulfilled his 10-year dedication to the army final 12 months — serving eight of these years as a pilot, logging three,000 flight hours and numerous fight missions. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he stated.

Some of Mr. Asadi’s service medals.

To these he served with, he was a hero.

Air Force Capt. Robert V. Yost wrote that in July 2020 Major Asadi flew one in every of two armed MD-530 helicopters that protected the crash web site of a downed U.S. Air Force pilot in northern Afghanistan till he was rescued.

“This is one of countless events where Major Asadi’s actions have protected and saved lives,” Captain Yost wrote in an announcement included with the pilot’s 2020 utility.

In the identical utility, an assistant secretary of protection, Ezra Cohen, wrote of Major Asadi: “Applicant and his family are in imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban.”

After their utility was revoked in October, the household’s passports had been delivered to the U.S. army, stated Kimberley Motley, a North Carolina-based human rights legal professional. Frightened, Major Asadi referred to as a good friend, who organized for the household to dwell at Bagram Air Base, an American facility.

They stored a low profile. American service members helped feed and take care of them, Mr. Asadi stated. They showered Zainab with toys and stuffed animals.

In early December, Ms. Motley stated, American commanders ordered the household to depart. She stated she persuaded the army to return the household’s passports. The Asadis then went into hiding at a protected home in Kabul.

“We just prayed and prayed to somehow be able to go to the U.S.,” Major Asadi stated. The household not often went out, fearing that somebody would report them to the Taliban, who he stated had informed him, “The U.S. cannot protect you.”

The household exterior the Kabul airport on Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, Major Asadi and Rahima, each carrying new plaid shirts and denims, piled into an S.U.V. certain for the Kabul airport. Zainab, clutching a pink rose, hopped inside, her ponytail bobbing.

An airline official accepted paperwork displaying that the Asadis had examined unfavourable for the coronavirus the day earlier than. Then an immigration officer in a glass sales space used a magnifying glass to look at all three stamps earlier than finally letting them cross.

The household arrived for coronavirus testing at a clinic the day earlier than their departure.

Ms. Motley stated she secured the Asadis’ second humanitarian parole final month, with out in search of endorsement from the Pentagon. On Tuesday, she accompanied the household from Kabul to Dubai and on to New York — and a brand new life in America for the household.

Major Asadi’s American sponsor, who requested anonymity to assist safeguard the exact location of the Asadis within the United States, has supplied housing in New Jersey and has paid journey bills, Ms. Motley stated. A dozen former and lively U.S. army advisers who labored with Major Asadi have pledged help. Once within the United States, the household shall be in a position apply for asylum.

Major Asadi’s sister and her brother throwing water behind the household as they depart the home — a convention that’s presupposed to carry gentle to the trail of a traveler and carry them house sooner.

From the aircraft, Major Asadi telephoned his father in Ghazni Province in southeastern Afghanistan to disclose that he was flying to the United States. Last 12 months, the Taliban wrote and phoned his father and ordered him to give up his son or face demise, in accordance with a duplicate of the letter connected to the 2020 parole utility.

Now, as the daddy discovered that the household was on its technique to security, he wept and hung up.

The Asadis searching on the Persian Gulf, seeing a physique of water for the primary time of their lives.

Major Asadi just isn’t the primary well-known Afghan pilot to flee Afghanistan for America.

Niloofar Rahmani, 28, Afghanistan’s first feminine mounted wing-pilot and Mr. Asadi’s flight college classmate, was granted asylum in 2018 after she was threatened by the Taliban and by some prolonged relations. The Afghan Air Force accused her of mendacity and requested the United States to reject her asylum utility.

“You have to choose between your family or your dream — your career,” she stated. “God forbid something happened to him. Who would protect his family then?”

The Asadi household on the Dubai airport.

Major Asadi wished Zainab to attend American faculties and be taught English. Ms. Asadi stated she had been practising her English: “Good morning,” and “Hi, how are you?” Ms. Asadi recited.

Zainab stated she was wanting to play with the sponsor’s household canine, which she had seen romping round throughout a video name.

By Tuesday night time, the Asadi household was struggling to sleep on padded seats inside fashionable, gleaming Dubai International Airport. They had by no means traveled exterior Afghanistan or flown on a world flight.

Ms. Asadi and Zainab encountered an escalator for the primary time. The woman rode the steps with delight, however her mom stumbled.

“Mom, don’t be afraid!” Zainab stated.

Ms. Asadi hesitated on the backside of an escalator on the airport in Dubai.

On Wednesday afternoon, their Emirates Airline flight landed at J.F.Ok. Airport in New York. The Asadis had been ushered into a gathering with immigration officers, with out their lawyer, however had been granted entry 45 minutes later.

The household walked exterior onto American soil, weary however elated. “I’m really not so tired because of all the new and beautiful things we’ll be doing now,” Major Asadi stated.

During the lengthy aircraft journey, he launched feelings that had been welling inside him for months. In neatly printed English, he wrote a two-page letter of gratitude to everybody within the United States and Afghanistan who had helped them.

He wrote: “Your ambition is like a roaring sea and running water and your kindness is as high as the sky and the vastness of the earth.”

Kiana Hayeri contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Dubai, and Najim Rahim from Kabul.