Military Overlooked Sexual Abuse by Afghan Allies, Investigation Says

September 21, 2015
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by Sara Obeidat Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The practice in Afghanistan of bacha bazi, a term that literally translates to mean “boy play,” is taking a toll on the conscience of American soldiers, who according to a New York Times investigation published Sunday, have been told to ignore such sexual abuse, even when it occurs on U.S. military outposts there.

The Times investigation, which draws on court records and interviews with U.S. military personnel, suggests that in certain instances, American soldiers have been disciplined for disobeying a policy of nonintervention in cases of sexual abuse of children. As the report notes:

The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban. But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children.

The report focuses, in part, on the case of Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain in Afghanistan who was relieved from his duties after beating up a U.S.-backed Afghan militia leader who had been spending his wages on “dancing boys,” even keeping a young boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.

“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,” Quinn told The Times. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did.”

Although bacha bazi has existed throughout history in parts of Afghanistan, the practice of pedophilia served as one of the provocations for the Taliban’s ascendance to power. The Taliban banned bacha bazi, forcing the custom underground.  After the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, the practice was rekindled. In the years since, Afghan military commanders, warlords, and other men with authority have been cited by human rights groups for engaging in the practice.

But U.S. forces have been reluctant to impose American cultural values “in a country where pederasty is rife,” according to the report, which noted that the nonintervention policy was “intended to maintain good relations with the Afghan police and militia units the United States has trained to fight the Taliban.”

In a statement to The Times, Col. Brian Tribus, the spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan, said that, “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law.” There is “no express requirement that U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan report it,” added Tribus, except for in cases when rape is being used as a weapon of war.

In the 2010 documentary The Dancing Boys of AfghanistanFRONTLINE was given rare access into the disturbing world of bacha bazi, revealing why it still exists, and why it has been so difficult to end. As Radhika Coomaraswamy, a U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict says in the film, “The only way to stop bacha bazi is if you prosecute the people who commit the crime, and that’s what we need, because the laws are there in the books against this practice.”

Related Film: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

FRONTLINE takes viewers inside the war-torn nation to reveal a disturbing practice that is once again flourishing in the country — the organized sexual abuse of adolescent boys.

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