Sometimes your allies turn out to be almost as bad as your enemies. That’s the case when it comes to some of the militia commanders and police officers the United States has associated itself with in Afghanistan.
According to The New York Times, some keep young boys as sexual slaves — and have abused those children on bases where US soldiers are stationed. One particularly appalling detail in the Times account comes from Gregory Buckley Sr., the father of a Marine killed on base in 2012. Buckley said his son, Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr., had told him he could hear boys screaming at night from the sexual abuse they were suffering on base from Afghan police officers.
According to the Times, US soldiers were instructed to ignore child sexual abuse committed by US-backed Afghan commanders or police officers. (Buckley Jr. and two other Marines were murdered by a teenager who was part of an Afghan police commander’s on-base entourage.) Further, the Times reports, two US special forces members have suffered tough discipline for beating up an Afghan militia commander who kept a boy as a sex slave. For its part, the Pentagon on Monday denied that US service members had been instructed to turn a blind eye to that abuse.
There has long been an undercurrent of man-boy pedophilia in Afghanistan. There’s even a term for it: “bacha bazi,” or boy play. And perverse rituals associated with it. In one, prepubescent boys dressed as girls dance for powerful men, who then buy them or pay to use them as prostitutes.
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says that during the decade he spent living in Afghanistan, from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, the practice was associated with southern Afghanistan, and particularly Kandahar.
But it’s a mistake to think of it as something that is culturally accepted, says Gouttierre, who says that everyday Afghans “would speak about people who did this in very, very derogatory terms. . . . There was an acknowledgment that this was something society was seeking to reform.”
Instead, pedophilia became more widespread after the former USSR invaded Afghanistan; some Afghan warlords and militia commanders fighting the Soviets began sexually abusing village boys with impunity. During their brutal rule, the Taliban punished bacha bazi severely, but the sexual abuse has recurred since the toppling of that government. Although the United Nations has tried to push Afghan authorities to combat the illegal practice, enforcement has often gone wanting, in part, apparently, because some police are complicit.
Andrew Bacevich, emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University, says the situation highlights the unacknowledged reality of current US policy in Afghanistan.
“The military’s purpose is to restore sufficient order to enable us to depart without having to acknowledge defeat,” he says. “And looked at through that lens, the warlord or police chief or militia commander who is best able to assert order becomes our ally, regardless of any personal predilections. This terribly sad and ugly story suggests the moral compromises we have made simply to enable us to get out.”
Now, the United States obviously can’t police all of Afghanistan, but we shouldn’t be looking the other way when abhorrent things occur. We should weed out the offenders among our allies. We should push Afghanistan harder to crack down. And there should be an imperative not to let this occur on bases US soldiers share with Afghan forces.
This is simply an outrage too far.