FPI Bulletin: It’s Time to Rethink U.S. Policy Towards Child Sex Abuse in Afghanistan

October 8, 2015

By FPI Associate Analyst Lauren McNally and Policy Director David Adesnik

“U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies,” the front-page of the New York Times reported on September 21. In the last phone call home before his death, Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr. told his father, “At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it.” The Department of Defense denied the existence of any policy directing the troops to ignore such abuse, but said such claims were “a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law” and “there is no express requirement that U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan report it.” In practice, there is not much difference between a policy that allows American troops to ignore such abuse and one that compels them to ignore it. Often justified on the mistaken grounds that pedophilia is an accepted part of Afghan culture, this policy is both unethical as well as detrimental to the war effort. It should be replaced with a proactive policy that enables American forces to partner with local authorities to report and prosecute such crimes.

Public concern about the sexual abuse of Afghan children has led the U.S. military toward a more responsible policy, albeit without acknowledging the hands-off approach it has long taken toward the issue. On the day after the Times published its front-page story, Army General John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, issued a statement in which he condemned sexual abuse as “completely unacceptable, and reprehensible.” Campbell also made clear his expectation that “any suspicions of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to the chain of command, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are.” Yet he was careful not to suggest that such expectations had existed previously. On the same day, in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, retired General David Petraeus testified that neither abuse nor sex slavery had ever been acceptable while he served as commander of American forces. On the other hand, Petraeus did not describe any sort of active determination to stamp out such practices, whose existence has been common knowledge since American troops first arrived.

Despite the absence of any official policy of turning a blind eye, both the Times and the Daily Beast have compiled anecdotal evidence that this was what happened in practice. The Times described the case of Afghan police commander Sarwar Jan. At a base in Helmand, a “large entourage of ‘tea boys’ — domestic servants who are sometimes pressed into sexual slavery — had arrived with Mr. Jan and moved into the same barracks, one floor below the Marines.” One of the boys later shot and killed three Marines. The Marine Corps is now attempting to discharge Maj. Jason Breszler, who sought to warn his superiors about the problem. In a similar vein, the Daily Beast obtained a training guide for Marines that offers “practically no guidance” on what to do about sexual abuse committed by “local nationals.” The Marine Corps guide specifically states that, in Afghanistan in particular, “sexual assault is a ‘cultural’ issue, and not a purely legal one,” thus Afghans may actually see the victims of sexual assault as the guilty parties. 

Despite the Marine Corps’ description of sexual abuse as a “cultural issue”, it is outlawed in Afghanistan and deeply resented especially by those whose children are the victims. Two days after the Times published its story, President Ashraf Ghani instructed the leadership of the Afghan security forces that “the laws, culture, and religious values of the people of Afghanistan recognize sexual abuse of children as one of the severest crimes and violations of human rights.”

This is not the first time an Afghan government has attempted to crack down on such practices. In 2011, President Hamid Karzai approved a plan to cooperate with the U.N. to prevent both sex abuse and the recruitment of child soldiers. Among the strongest supporters of that effort was the Ulema Council, the highest religious authority in Afghanistan. Furthermore, all forms of sexual abuse, slavery, and ownership of children have been explicitly illegal under Afghanistan law since the early 2000s. While the Taliban’s brutal interpretation of Islamic law imposed tremendous suffering on the Afghan people, the Koranic prohibition of homosexuality led the Taliban to punish violently those who committed abuse.

Despite widespread condemnation, child sex abuse is rife in some segments of Afghanistan society, especially among the warlords and strongmen who dominate Afghanistan’s rural countryside, where the possession of boys is seen as a mark of status, wealth, and influence. One form of pederasty is known as bacha bazi, or “boy play”, the practice where young boys are sold to be used for entertainment and illicit sex. A 2012 investigation by the Washington Post found that dancing boys had even become common at lavish weddings in Kabul. According to a U.N. official who spoke with the Post, perpetrators ostracize any victim who seeks to report such abuse, fearing the embarrassment of such revelations.

The precise extent of the abuse is difficult to determine. The State Department’s 2010 report on human rights indicated that the abuse “remained pervasive”, while Afghan media outlets frequently reported on harems of boys employed for bacha bazi.  Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution told Foreign Policy that abuse is prevalent among Afghan Local Police (ALP), whom the U.S. and British have trained to provide village-level defense against the Taliban.

U.S. forces have struggled to define an approach that balances the need to cooperate with Afghan partners with the need to uphold human rights and provide security for the population. A declassified report from 2011 described numerous coalition personnel in southern Kandahar province “complaining about the rampant sexual abuse of children they have witnessed ANSF personnel commit, including the practice of bacha bazi, as well as the raping and sodomizing of little boys” and presciently warned that “U.S. soldiers witnessing such barbaric acts may likely lead to violent confrontations with the perpetrators.” It was precisely such an incident that drew the attention of the New York Times, which reported that the Army relieved Captain Dan Quinn “a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.” The Army is also attempting to expel Sergeant Charles Martland, a decorated Green Beret, who joined Quinn in the beating.

The persistence of child sex abuse is ultimately a military problem and not just an ethical dilemma because the foundation of counterinsurgency doctrine is the imperative to secure the population. This entails both physical security and a defense against predation by those empowered to provide security. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has recognized the importance of addressing abuses such as corruption and torture that are perpetrated by Afghan security forces. Child sex abuse must be added to this list. The resentment of victims and their families may be exploited by insurgents. In fact, most accounts of the Taliban’s rise to power in the 1990s emphasize how their redress of grievances relating to sexual abuse represented one of their most powerful means of winning popular support.

The initial response of General Campbell suggests that the U.S. military recognizes the importance of the problem it faces, yet there have been similar moments in the past. The challenge now is for the military to establish mechanisms for rapidly and fairly investigating reports of abuse brought forward by the troops or by the local population. It will also be critical to educate troops about the proper way to handle incidents of abuse, so they do not find themselves in the shameful position of effectively tolerating it.  In addition, American military and diplomatic leaders should leverage their strong relationship with President Ghani to support his reforms while ensuring that the determination of the Afghan government to stamp out abuse does not falter. In his congressional testimony on October 6, General Campbell called the commitment to human rights a “fundamental value” of the U.S. military; in addition to upholding this value as a matter of principle; it must inform the United States’ enduring partnership with Afghan security forces to ensure their reception as a legitimate and respected provider of national security.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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