- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sought Wednesday to reassure the United States that he does not condone the sexual abuse of boys by his nation’s security forces — a seamy cultural gap that has long been unacknowledged even as it has plagued the war effort.
Ghani issued a statement promising to undertake “serious measures” to prevent sexual abuse of children. In a video conference with his military commanders, Ghani demanded they uphold “the laws, culture, and religious values of the people of Afghanistan [and] recognize sexual abuse of children as one of the severest crimes and violations of human rights.”
The practice of Afghan warlords and military commanders forcing young boys to act as sexual slaves — known as bacha bazi, or “boy play” — has been widely written about since the opening days of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in 2001. But new allegations have surfaced by American troops who say they were ordered to look the other way — and in at least two cases, were disciplined when they resisted — when confronted with the abuse.
That’s widely inconsistent with how U.S. and NATO allies have generally worked with, and mentored, Afghan security forces, said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“U.S. forces have a pretty good policy about pushing back against Afghan forces engaging in torture,” Sifton told Foreign Policy. “Why they would distinguish between torture and the rape of boys is beyond me.”
Over the course of its long mission in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have steadily scaled back nation-building ambitions, which had initially embraced women’s rights and promoting the rule of law and democratic reforms. Anxious to end America’s military presence, U.S. officials in the Obama administration started talking about “Afghan good enough” as shorthand for forsaking a bid to transform Afghan society in favor of the more limited goal of preventing the return of Taliban rule.
A May 2011 study published by George Washington University cited Afghans’ “cruelty toward women and children” as a main driver of U.S. troops’ disdain and negative perceptions toward the very people they were deployed to protect. The study, by military behavioral scientist Dr. Jeffrey Bordin, offered a relatively half-hearted recommendation: That more research and development was needed to develop cultural training and behavior standards.
“How they treat their women and children is disgusting; they are just chattel to them,” one unidentified U.S. soldier said in the study.
Earlier this week, Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, demanded that any suspicions of sexual abuse be reported immediately, “regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are.”
“I want to make absolutely clear that any sexual abuse or similar mistreatment of others, no matter the alleged perpetrator or victim, is completely unacceptable, and reprehensible,” Campbell said in Tuesday’s statement.
On the same day, the Army denied the appeal of an Army Green Beret soldier who says he was disciplined for pushing and striking an Afghan police officer in 2011 who had confessed to raping a boy and then beating his mother. Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland claims his actions, along with another Army officer, hurt his career and put him on a list of soldiers who are being downsized from the military due to budget cuts.
Martland has been told he must leave the Army by Nov. 1. His case has been taken up by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who is hammering Defense Secretary Ash Carter to reconsider Martland’s job.
“I hope that when making a decision between supporting an elite warrior like Martland or a child rapist and criminal, the organizations or individuals in a position to make a decision will side with Martland,” Hunter wrote. A spokesperson for Hunter told said he has yet to receive a reply from Carter’s office.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown said the young Afghan boys who suffer abuse often don’t have an adult who will shield them, since many are orphans or from an ethnic minority. She said bacha bazi is prevalent among the Afghan Local Police (ALP) as well, which has long been criticized as being rife with corruption and abuse.
The ALP program was created in 2010 by U.S. and British forces to supplement the ranks of the Afghan army and police by recruiting small groups of local fighters to provide security in their own towns and villages. They receive minimal training, but were backed by local NATO forces and given some direct oversight by small teams of Special Forces personnel.
There are currently almost 30,000 ALP spread throughout the country, but critics have charged that the groups are too often little more than gangs run by local warlords who use the guise of policing as an excuse to extort and intimidate the local population.
Felbab-Brown, who extensively researched the local police program in Afghanistan, said some of the ALP sites she visited were full of “young boys hanging around.” But it wasn’t exclusive to the militias. “You would see the same thing at police stations, at Afghan military bases,” she said. “They were supposedly cooks, cleaners, and tea boys. But at times they were also sex slaves.”
In a report issued in June, the International Crisis Group pointed to “a survey of U.S. Special Operations Forces teams mentoring ALP units in 2011 found that 20 per cent reported ALP colleagues were guilty of undefined ‘physical abuse/violence.’”
“We’ve been training this military for 14 years, but we haven’t trained them to build a military justice system and to hold people accountable when they commit abuses,” Human Rights Watch’s Sifton said.
Photo Credit: ADEK BERRY/AFP/GettyImages