A report describing how American forces looked the other way as powerful Afghans raped boys with impunity – an issue that long plagued the war effort in Afghanistan – prompted declarations of outrage in Washington on Monday, but officials said the problem was ultimately for Afghans to solve.
The Pentagon insisted that it never ordered troops to ignore any kind of rights abuse. But among U.S. military personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan, it was well known that many wealthy and prominent Afghans rape boys, often making them dress up as women and dance at gatherings during which they are assaulted – and that Western officials often turned a blind eye to the practice for fear of alienating allies.
The policy of instructing soldiers to ignore pedophilia by their Afghan allies is coming under new scrutiny, particularly as it emerges that some service members have faced discipline, even career ruin, for disobeying it.
Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain, beat up a U.S.-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. 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 Sgt. 1st 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),” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., 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.
With the bulk of U.S. troops now gone from Afghanistan, the resignation among U.S. officials over a practice that many described as “abhorrent” was evident on Monday. It seemed to reflect the fact that while the rape of boys may shock foreigners and infuriate Afghans, it is only one of the many problems in Afghanistan.
Over the 14 years since the start of the war, the criminality often tolerated inside the Afghan government and security forces, both of which were paid for and nurtured by the United States, has run the gamut from opium smuggling and corruption by Afghan officials to allegations of murder and torture by Afghan soldiers and police officers.
In many cases, especially with drug trafficking and corruption, the response from U.S. officials has often been that ordinary Afghans do not view the problems the way Westerners do, and that trying to clean up the Afghan government could well destroy it.
Cases of torture and murder by the Afghan security forces, which have been documented by human rights groups and the news media, have often been overlooked for fear of undercutting the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Though some Americans have tried to write off the practice of raping boys, which was described in an article in The New York Times on Monday, as a cultural difference between Afghans and Westerners, many Afghans say that they, too, find it shameful and wrong. (In fact, the Taliban banned it when in power.)
But it is rampant among the pro-government commanders who dominate many rural areas of northern Afghanistan and run militias that at times team with U.S.-led forces.
As a result, the U.S. military long struggled with how to handle cases of pedophilia that its troops encountered. Most often, according to troops who served in Afghanistan, the solution was to ignore the practice.
But troops on the front line, who often shared bases with Afghan forces, often bristled when they were told by commanders to look the other way. The article in The Times detailed how in 2011, two U.S. soldiers beat up an Afghan commander who was accused of raping boys and who laughed when confronted with the allegations. One of the soldiers was relieved of his command and then left the military, and the other is being forced out.
On Monday, U.S. officials said they would never tolerate sexual assaults of boys by Afghan security forces.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of Afghan boys who may be exploited by members of the Afghan national security and defense forces,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “This form of sexual exploitation violates Afghan law and Afghanistan’s international obligations.”
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, called the rapes “abhorrent” but insisted there was no policy instructing service members to ignore allegations.
“I can just tell you that there is nothing that would preclude any military member from making reports about human rights violations to their chain of command,” Davis said.
Ultimately, he said, the problem is “fundamentally an Afghan law enforcement matter, and those are reports that are given over to the Afghan government.”
Davis said each discussion with the Afghan government would “make its way to a higher level” and get into annual State Department human rights reports to make clear “that this is a practice we find abhorrent.”
But even if reports are passed on to the Afghan authorities – a number of service members and civilian officials say they rarely are – there is little indication the Afghan government has the will or ability to prosecute men suspected of rape. That left U.S. forces with little recourse, and commanders at times instructed their troops not to expect much if they did file a report.
“International forces have been fighting on two fronts,” said Graeme Smith, an analyst based in Afghanistan, for the International Crisis Group. “On the one hand, against the insurgency, and on the other hand, trying to make their Afghan allies respectable custodians of security. Both those wars haven’t always been successful.”