Pentagon Accused of Blocking Report On Child Sex Abuse By Afghan Allies
An Afghan boy who was held as a child sex slave walks with a relative at a unidentified location in Afghanistan. (AREF KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images)
The office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has accused the Defense Department of having sought to block an outside investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by American allies in Afghanistan, saying the Pentagon gave favor to its own assessment over an independent probe requested by Congress.
The Washington Post reported this week that the independent inquiry sought by Congress in 2015 was submitted for review in February, yet remains classified despite having been completed five months before the Pentagon concluded its own investigation.
“It doesn’t seem [the Pentagon] is treating this with the urgency they should,” Leahy told the Post. “It has already taken too long.”
The independent report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is believed to offer a fuller assessment of the U.S. military’s response to allegations of sexual abuse by Afghan soldiers and police. “It’s information I believe the American people have a right to know,” SIGAR head John Sopko told the Post.
Kathie Scarrah, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, denied the charges from Leahy’s office, and told the Post that “the focus of the attention” should be on the “significant findings” included in the Pentagon investigation.
That inquiry, released earlier this month, found that for more than a decade, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were not properly trained in how to report allegations of child sexual abuse by American allies on the ground there. American forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but according to the Defense Department’s inspector general report, U.S. military personnel “may not have known to report allegations of child sexual abuse” up the chain of command until September 2015.
In some instances, the report said, troops were informally told to ignore alleged abuses by American allies in the country.
The report centered around allegations of sexual abuse by Afghan soldiers and local police under a practice known in the country as “bacha bazi,” which translates to “boy play.” Bacha bazi was officially banned under the Taliban and remains illegal in Afghanistan, but as FRONTLINE found in the 2010 documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, the practice has secretly been revived.
The Pentagon’s investigation followed a September 2015 article by the New York Times that found that a U.S. “policy of nonintervention” was intended to maintain positive relations with Afghan forces in the fight against the Taliban and other extremists. Multiple soldiers faced disciplinary action after disobeying what some described as an unwritten rule to ignore the abuse, according to the Times investigation.
The inspector general report reviewed 16 allegations of abuse involving Afghan officials reported to the Pentagon between 2010 and 2016, yet it cautioned that due to inconsistent reporting procedures and the lack of a unified guidance on reporting child sexual abuse, it could not confirm whether that number represents all reported allegations.
In the report, investigators said they did not identify any official guidance that “discouraged” American personnel from reporting incidents of child sex abuse. However, “In some cases, the interviewees explained that they, or someone whom they knew, were told that nothing could be done about child sexual abuse because of Afghanistan’s status as a sovereign nation, that it was not a priority for the command, or that it was best to ignore the situation and to let the local police handle it,” the report stated.
The report also found an uneven approach to how the military handles child sexual abuse in Afghanistan during cultural awareness training. While Army and Air Force training do not discuss child sexual abuse in Afghanistan, a “cultural-awareness guide” provided by the Marine Corps says that Afghan men may “joke among themselves” about pedophilia and that Marines should “move on” when encountering that attitude. Navy training documents acknowledge that pedophilia and child sex trafficking exists in Afghanistan. The training also suggests that sailors consult their chains of command about how to act in ambiguous situations.
Following a guidance issued in September 2015, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were required to immediately report suspected human rights violations, including allegations of child sexual abuse.
Under the 2014 Leahy Law, the U.S. may not use funds to assist foreign military units found to have committed gross human rights violations. The inspector general found that despite the law, there is still no policy to determine the credibility of information supporting a gross human rights allegation, including child sexual abuse, potentially affecting the Pentagon’s ability to follow the Leahy Law.
The inspector general’s office recommended that the Secretary of Defense create an office to develop procedures on reporting violations of human rights and suggested the creation of more detailed protocols for U.S. personnel to report child sexual abuse by Afghan forces.
In a response to the report, Robert Karam, acting undersecretary of defense, wrote, “There should be no confusion … U.S. military personnel do not require explicit guidance to know that child sexual assault in all cases is wrong, must not be tolerated and requires informing the chain of command.”