We talk about the possibility of losing the war in Afghanistan, but what if we lose our soul in Afghanistan?
Indirectly, Frontline will be asking that very question on April 20 with an underground report on the resurgence of bacha bazi or "boy play" among the wealthiest and most powerful men in northern Afghanistan. It’s the pustule threatening to burst all over the righteousness of our humanitarian effort there, and just the tip of the sick fact of how poor Afghan children are systematically used, abused, and tossed away by the ruling elite and even Afghan soldiers living, training, and fighting alongside our own.
Bacha bazi is an old Afghan tradition of taking young boys, dressing them up like girls, and making them perform for older men in tea rooms, weddings, and other private venues. The boys are "owned" by single or married men who trade or keep the boys as concubines. According to reports, the boys’ ages range from eight to 19, when they "age out" of the practice and are released.
"The bacha dancers are often abused children whose families have rejected them," said the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who wrote about the practice in September. He described one boy who was sexually assaulted by a mechanic in his town. The boy’s family blamed him and turned him out. He was forced to live with the man who attacked him. "Now I am with someone else, and he taught me how to dance," the boy, now 16 years old, said.
Other reports describe bacha bazi as an increasingly lucrative business, in which the boy slaves are seen as important status symbols of the elite. "Everyone tries to have the best, most handsome, and good-looking boy," a former mujahedin commander told Reuters back in 2007.
A 42-year-old landowner in Baghlan province named Enayatullah told Reuters, "I was married to a woman 20 years ago, she left me because of my boy. … I was playing with my boy every night and was away from home, eventually my wife decided to leave me. I am happy with my decision because I am used to sleeping and entertaining with my young boy."
The boys, who often know no other life but as chattel, call the men "my lord." Attempting escape could result in severe physical punishment, or even death. The family of a dead 15-year-old boy told Frontline that a policeman was eventually thrown in jail in connection with his murder. But they believed the boy’s former owner, a wealthy drug baron whom he was escaping, bribed local officials to set the policeman free after only "a few months" of jail time.
"If only these people were punished, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen," the boy’s mother said. "Whoever commits these crimes doesn’t get punished. Power is power."
I remember the first time I ever heard of bacha bazi. A soldier friend of mine who had been in Kabul told me of a disconcerting evening when he stumbled into a tea room in which a group of well-dressed Afghan men were gathering. His Afghan interpreter yanked him by the arm and out of the place, warning of danger. That was bacha bazi, he explained, in which young boys are forced to dance for men. He had better move on and forget.
He moved on, but he never forgot. Like me, my friend had grown up in a working class New England town, and these were horrors that men were beaten and even killed for in prison. We call it pedophilia, and most here would say is worth an eternity of damnation for its perpetrators, not a high social rank and adulation among the town’s elite.
"It’s gotten limited attention," admitted Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch. "There’s been some Afghan investigative journalists who have tackled it, though in areas where the perpetrators are also local ‘commanders’ whether official or unofficial, there will always be fear of reprisals."
Approaching the issue as Americans we are flummoxed, as if it occurs on another planet. Reprisals for exposing the sexual abuse of children? The Catholic Church spent more than a half-century hiding its abusive priests because it feared that reprisals from the outside might destroy the institution. Here, we have authority figures – former commanders and warlords – flaunting their dancing slave boys, practically daring interference from outside.
"What was so unnerving about the men I had met was not just their lack of concern for the damage their abuse was doing to the boys," said Najibullah Quraishi, the Afghan journalist who was escorted through the underground by one of the bacha bazi pimps for six months. His harrowing footage and reporting was broadcast by Australia’s Four Corners in February and will make its American debut via Frontline. "It was also their casualness with which they operated and the pride with which they show me their boys, their friends, their world. They clearly believed that nothing they were doing was wrong."
The behavior of these modern slave owners belies an endemic problem that human rights advocates and even NATO military personnel operating in Afghanistan have observed for some time now, according to reports. (The U.S. State Department included the rape, abuse, and exploitation of Afghan children in its 2009 annual human rights report, released in March).
But observers say the age-old ritual of man-boy predatory sex, which is obliquely condoned throughout Afghanistan because of a pervasive fear or indifference about prosecuting it on any serious level, according to numerous reports, has proliferated after decades of poverty, corruption, and a lack of enduring social institutions. All reports indicate that while bacha bazi and the abuse is illegal, perpetrators rarely pay for their crimes. Meanwhile, poor families sell their children, and orphans are snatched off the street. They are the meekest, preyed upon by the strongest – the kind of wealthy, powerful men who have benefited most from the Western occupation and generous foreign aid.
This has put us in a moral and ethical quandary too painful and perhaps too shameful to contemplate more openly.
Take the military, for example. First, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgment on the part of Western soldiers that Afghans they serve with in the field are engaging in homosexual activity (no irony there, of course). Many have written about how the strict segregation of Afghan men and women (who are also treated as property in traditional Afghan society) before marriage prevents the course of natural physical and emotional relationships between the sexes, and as one Afghan historian told me, "Straight guys find that their sexuality is flexible in these sorts of situations … soon [sex between men is] widely accepted with a wink and a nudge."
But it is when Afghan soldiers move beyond consensual "man-love Thursdays" with each other to procuring young boys in broad daylight that the flood of revulsion, resentment, and awkward questions comes to bear. Do they have the right to discipline? Would there be reprisals if they complained?
In 2008, apparently fed up, Canadian soldiers and chaplains did begin to complain.
In June that year the Toronto Star reported that a Canadian soldier said he witnessed in 2006 injuries sustained by a boy he had heard was raped by an Afghan soldier at one of the Canadian outposts in Kandahar. These injuries included the boy’s intestines falling out of his body, a "sign of trauma from anal rape." The Canadian’s testimony, in addition to other complaints, including an eyewitness account of the rape of a boy by two Afghan military personnel at Canada’s Forward Operating Base Wilson in 2006, formed the basis of an official investigation into whether the brass were ignoring complaints about systematic abuse up through 2007.
According to the press, an initial military investigation concluded in 2008 that the allegations were unfounded. Another investigation, launched by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Services (CFNIS), concluded in May 2009 that Canadian Forces Military Police in Afghanistan "did not receive any complaints on the alleged sexual abuse of Afghan male children." It did not answer the question of whether there had been any abuse, and it curiously noted that "the CFNIS has no jurisdiction over Afghan National Army or locally contracted interpreters in Afghanistan."
Nevertheless, subsequent testimony from Canadian personnel and newly released documents shed light on an utterly confusing landscape of conflicting official statements and reports, and they raise the question of who knew what and when, and whether the chain of command was listening or passing the buck. There are more than a few official/unofficial acknowledgments that Afghan police and military members were "having anal sex with young boys," plus disturbing allegations that the Canadian brass were told about the rapes and pressed soldiers to ignore them.
A new board of inquiry was opened last year, but what will it conclude? Is the military so afraid of overstepping cultural and political boundaries that it is paralyzed from doing the right thing?
The Ottawa Citizen described the soldier who had witnessed the intestines falling out of the boy’s body as now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. If anecdotal evidence now surfacing that our own troops are witnessing similar things is true, we can only imagine the kind of moral and ethical hell they can be living out every day they risk their lives for this still largely undefined mission.
In writing about the rape of boys and its implications on the sustained Western alliance with the Afghan government and military in the Long War, journalist Patrick Cockburn commented in September, "one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomizing them."
The Taliban reportedly banned these practices when it was in power. Today, clerics we would consider radical openly and regularly condemn bacha bazi and sex with children. "Under Islamic law, those who practice this would be stoned to death," Mawllawi Mohammaed Sadiq Sadiqyar, a prayer leader and scholar in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, told Reuters.
Nothing is ever black and white, and Taliban soldiers certainly don’t always "practice what they preach," as one source pointed out to me. But the Western mission sure gets complicated under these conditions. As usual, there are more questions than answers.
If the U.S. mission is to kneecap the Taliban, a radical religious movement that at one point managed to ostensibly restrain the cruel and morally abominable activities of creepy pimps/masters who liked to dominate and play with boys when they weren’t warring with one another and shaking down the weakest among them, what in the end, does it all mean for the Afghans whom President Obama has vowed to uplift? If Hamid Karzai sits on the top of this worm-infested confection without one word about prosecuting these crimes or protecting the children of his country, what does it say about the billions of dollars we have poured into his government to assist him?
What do we really know about the former mujahedin commanders we view as allies against the Taliban? What do they do at night while their wives wait patiently at home? Does it turn your stomach to think that American money went to train the police who now stand shoulder-to-shoulder each night with Afghan men gaping at underage boys dancing in silk with bells on their feet?
Are we the world’s biggest chumps or the world’s biggest enablers?
Cockburn made a practical point about what turning a blind eye may mean for Western soldiers in the long term:
"[T]he fact that male rape is common practice in the Afghan armed forces has, unfortunately, a great deal to do with the fate of British soldiers.
"There was a horrified reaction across Britain last week when a 25-year-old policeman called Gulbuddin working in a police station in the Nad Ali district of Helmand killed five British soldiers when he opened fire with a machine gun on them. But the reason he did so, according to Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times, citing two Afghans who knew Gulbuddin, was that he had been brutally beaten, sodomized, and sexually molested by a senior Afghan officer whom he regarded as being protected by the British.
"The slaughter at Nad Ali is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan."
If winning the war against the "evildoers" means ignoring evil among our allies, then we have truly lost our soul. Cockburn argued that our governments should not put another Western soldier into Afghanistan while there is such obvious corruption snaking through the Afghan security services, not to mention the Karzai government. Too late. The U.S. military is set to expand its footprint of 100,000 by the end of the summer. Complaints within the ranks about Afghan military’s worthiness in the field will continue to simmer, while most of this stuff about debauchery, man-love Thursdays, sexual abuse, and the like will be left to percolate on the milblogs and in the tales soldiers bring home. Forget the State Department reports and the undercover investigative journalism; until the military (which is, like it or not, the face of America in Afghanistan) starts publicly condemning bacha bazi and the abuse of Afghan children with all the force and authority it can muster, then we might as well be putting our red scrawl on a pact with the devil.
No doubt the military cannot and will not seriously envisage withdrawing from that country now, but it should nonetheless consider this: take a long look at the boys shackled in the prisons, the orphans in the streets, the blank resignation of the victims of rape – they will no doubt be history’s next mujahedin, and they will be coming for the devil’s consorts.