KABUL — In his last phone call home, Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr. told his father what was troubling him: From his bunk in southern Afghanistan, he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they had brought to the base.
“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”
Gregory Buckley Sr. believes the policy of looking away from sexual abuse was a factor in his son’s death, and he has filed a lawsuit to press the Marine Corps for more information about it.
Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population.
The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and US soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.
The policy has endured as US forces have recruited and organized Afghan militia to help hold territory against the Taliban.
But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the US military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages, and doing little when they began abusing children.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up a US-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”
The policy of instructing soldiers to ignore pedophilia by their Afghan allies is coming under new scrutiny, particularly as it emerges that service members like Quinn have faced discipline, even career ruin, for disobeying it.
After the beating, the Army relieved Quinn of his command and pulled him from Afghanistan.
He has since left the military.
Four years later, the Army is also trying to forcibly retire Sergeant First Class Charles Martland, a Special Forces member who joined Quinn in beating up the commander.
“The Army contends that Martland and others should have looked the other way [a contention that I believe is nonsense],” Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who hopes to save Martland’s career, wrote last week to the Pentagon’s inspector general.
In Martland’s case, the Army said it could not comment because of the Privacy Act.
When asked about US military policy, the spokesman for the US command in Afghanistan, Colonel Brian Tribus, wrote in an e-mail: “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law.” He added that “there would be no express requirement that US military personnel in Afghanistan report it.” An exception, he said, is when rape is being used as a weapon of war.
The US policy of nonintervention was intended to maintain good relations with the Afghan police and militia units the United States has trained to fight the Taliban.
But the US policy of treating pedophilia as a cultural issue has often alienated the villages whose children were being preyed upon.