The Cable

After Congress Pushes, Pentagon Expands Look at Alleged Afghan Child Abuse

Lawmakers were unhappy with a Defense Department investigation, so they brought in their own team.

TOPSHOT - Afghan children play on the remains of a Soviet-era armored personnel carrier on the outskirts of Jalalabad on February 15, 2016. Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, after ten years of fighting against Mujahidin militiamen. AFP PHOTO/ Noorullah Shirzada / AFP / Noorullah Shirzada        (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Afghan children play on the remains of a Soviet-era armored personnel carrier on the outskirts of Jalalabad on February 15, 2016. Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, after ten years of fighting against Mujahidin militiamen. AFP PHOTO/ Noorullah Shirzada / AFP / Noorullah Shirzada (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department has significantly expanded its investigation into what U.S. military commanders knew about the alleged sexual abuse of young boys by members of the Afghan security forces. The new inquiry was in part spurred by increased pressure from Capitol Hill and an aggressive government watchdog group, which had launched its own investigation.

The issue first exploded last fall, when reports emerged that U.S. service members were being punished for confronting Afghan officers they accused of kidnapping and raping young boys on bases shared with U.S. troops, who were allegedly discouraged from reporting the abuse to their commanders.

Some in Congress were unhappy with the limited scope of the Pentagon’s initial efforts to investigate. By launching a preliminary research project in October, the Defense Department inspector general set out primarily to determine if there was any guidance given to U.S. troops to ignore the abuse. Since the results of the research project would not necessarily be made public, lawmakers were worried that the Pentagon’s findings could quickly be brushed under the rug.

Led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a bipartisan group of 93 members of Congress asked the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, to launch its own wide-ranging probe, which was announced in its quarterly report in January. The watchdog has already started work on the project, and has staffers on the ground in Afghanistan.

Spurred by the new investigation, Kenneth P. Moorefield, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for special plans and operations, released a letter on Feb. 19 saying his team is now “conducting a full assessment” of the allegations. A spokesperson for the inspector general’s office told Foreign Policy that parts of the assessment will likely be released publicly, possibly as early as this spring, and investigators will coordinate efforts with SIGAR.

The new inquiry raises questions over whether the Pentagon can effectively police itself. From the unsettled investigation into the deadly Oct. 3, 2015, strike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed as many as 42 civilians, to the yearslong history of unpunished sexual assaults, military leaders have an uneven track record in holding themselves accountable.

Lawmakers felt that SIGAR “provides an extra degree of independence” outside of the Pentagon and will take a wider view of the issue than merely looking at the Department of Defense, said a congressional aide.

The aide — familiar with the discussions over the two investigations — said lawmakers were convinced that calling in SIGAR was the right move after viewing the original document outlining the Pentagon’s research project, which was “focused entirely on the DoD. It was very limited in scope, and the conclusions would not necessarily be made public. We felt a more expansive inquiry by SIGAR was warranted, whose conclusions would be made public.”

The expanded scope of the new Pentagon project moves beyond its initial plan to discover if U.S. commanders issued instructions to “discourage reporting” of alleged Afghan abuses and to determine how many cases of alleged abuse had been reported to U.S. and Afghan authorities.

The new assessment, in contrast, will look at what legal authorities American military personnel might have to intervene in such cases while in Afghanistan. It will also seek to discover if U.S. forces are authorized to use force to stop abuse, and what powers Americans in Afghanistan might have to control which civilians might enter a base.

Another significant addition ripped straight from the pages of SIGAR’s investigation is a fresh assessment of what role the so-called “Leahy amendment” might play in Afghanistan.

Championed by Sen. Leahy, the rule prohibits U.S. forces from providing assistance to foreign military units who have engaged in human rights abuses. U.S. military officials have not applied the Leahy rule in Afghanistan before, but the Pentagon will consider how the rule might apply to interactions between U.S. forces and Afghan units they are partnering with.

Military officials have long denied that there were any written or unwritten policies directing service members to ignore the abuse. Gen. John Campbell, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told Congress in October that “what our policy has said since 2011 is that you have to report instances of sexual abuse by the Afghan security forces up the chain of command.” He added that he was unaware of any other direct or indirect orders to ignore the abuse.

The whole question of Afghan officers abusing children — known as “bacha bazi,” a slang term which means “boy play” — exploded last year due to the case of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland. Along with fellow Green Beret Capt. Daniel Quinn, Martland admitted to roughing up a local Afghan police commander in Kunduz in 2011 after their superiors allegedly ignored reports that the police commander repeatedly raped a boy he kept chained to his bed.

Quinn has since left the Army, but Martland is fighting to stay in despite the service’s attempts to discharge him. In October, then-Army Secretary John McHugh agreed to postpone Martland’s discharge until the soldier could file an appeal. The Army has until March 1 to decide whether he can remain in the service.

While the results of the new inquiry would come too late to influence Martland’s case, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said in a statement Monday that “while the prevalence of abuse in Afghanistan won’t suddenly stop, we can at least begin confronting the issue by ensuring it’s never allowed to happen in the presence of U.S. forces.” He added that he welcomes the new investigation, but “there must be resolution for [Sgt. 1st Class] Charles Martland, in a way that permits him to continue his service to the nation.”

Photo credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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