An American military practice of ignoring the sexual abuse of adolescent boys by Afghan allies is coming under fire after a report by the New York Times on Sunday. Soldiers and Marines were instructed to look the other way in the face of violent child abuse, even when it took place on U.S. military bases, the Times reports. If service members did something to stop it, the military had them punished.
The pedophilic practice of bacha bazi or “boy play” in which powerful Afghan men take on a “boy for pleasure” isn’t new. It has ancient roots in the 19th century and became more rampant after the Taliban’s fall in 2001. The practice is illegal under Afghanistan law, but its continued existence among some powerful Afghan men has remained more or less an open secret since the U.S. invaded in 2001—one that some soldiers were told wasn’t their responsibility to upheave.
A former Marine lance corporal told the Times: “The bigger picture was fighting the Taliban. It wasn’t to stop molestation.” The spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan, Col. Brian Tribus, said in an email to the Times: “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law,” adding that “there would be no express requirement that U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan report it.”
The American military’s attempts to distance itself from bacha bazi was reportedly an effort to maintain good standing with Afghan militia groups positioned to fight the Taliban and avoid imposing Western cultural ideals, the Times reports. It’s a move that begs the moral question: does looking the other way implicate the American military in child sexual abuse?
Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain, directly confronted the abhorrent practice. After finding out that a U.S.-backed Afghan police commander was keeping a boy sex slave chained to his bed, Quinn lashed out. He and another Special Forces member, Charles Martland, beat up the commander in an attempt to stop the sexual abuse from continuing.
In response, the Army “relieved Captain Quinn of his command and pulled him from Afghanistan,” and is currently trying to “forcibly retire Sgt. First Class Charles Martland,” according to the Times.
If the military had stepped in to stop sex crimes against young boys, it’s unclear how it would have affected the practice. Bacha bazi is surprisingly common in Afghanistan, with the State Department reporting two years ago that the practice was on the rise.