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Afghanistan and the sexual abuse of children

September 22, 2015

Summary: Sexual abuse and grooming of young children (mainly boys) for sexual abuse remains a repugnant, so-called “cultural” practice in Afghanistan.  Whether, when and how to challenge it remains a significant dilemma for international forces keen to keep anti-Taliban forces cooperative and effectively fighting the Taliban

A disturbing report in the New York Times highlights a problem too often swept under the carpet:

WASHINGTON — 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 American 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.

With the bulk of American troops now gone from Afghanistan, the resignation among American 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.

Western forces in Afghanistan have struggled to reconcile the need to defeat the Taliban with the corruption, nepotism, and a host of other abuses conducted by those anti-Taliban forces with which they must cooperate in order to achieve that goal.

Looking the other way when some petrol goes missing is moderately straightforward. Photos of ISAF troops walking through fields of poppy brought some controversy but could just about be sold on the basis that local livelihoods are being destroyed with nothing to replace it.  British troops (amongst others, I am sure), reported situations where Afghan police in Helmand were revealing British fighting positions by the simple process of standing by them long enough to enable Taliban fighters to get a fix.  The sexual abuse of young children – mainly boys (see Bacha Bazi)- by warlords is way over on the other end of the scale and begs the question: when is “local cultural values” insufficient as a defence and should be challenged?  There is a to and fro debate in the US regarding whether US forces have been instructed to ignore abuses.  The Pentagon argues that it is not official policy, nor have instructions been issued, that US personnel in Afghanistan should ignore reporting sexual crimes.

Military Times, dated 21 September 2015: A Florida congressman demanded the Pentagon make clear its opposition to child sexual abuse and offer some protection for troops who tried to stop the heinous crime while serving in Afghanistan. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called the revelations in the Times report disgraceful and disturbing.

“Protecting child predators is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as a nation,” he wrote in a letter Monday to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it’s even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it.”

Also on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, fired off a letter asking the Pentagon to provide “any and all existing Department of Defense legal guidance regarding the reporting of child abuse.” Hunter also recently asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to review the Army’s handling of a soldier who was punished for his aggressive response to the child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.

Top military officials said Monday that there is no written regulation requiring troops to turn a blind eye.

“There is no such policy that U.S. troops should not report or intervene in situations where children are being sexually abused,” said Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

I sincerely hope that that is the case.  But of course “official policy” can mean different things.  I am guessing that a US officer on the ground might face a few administrative, bureaucratic and even career-threatening hurdles if he attempt to press home an official complaint that undermined a key anti-Taliban warlord whose forces were holding together the security of a wobbly province.

Definitely need to watch this issue…

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