Sunday, November 28th, 2021
Home »Editorials » Culturally acceptable phenomenon?

There is much one can find distasteful about the US military's presence in Afghanistan. But last year's report in The New York Times on bacha bazi (child sexual abuse) in the country and the US military's attitude to it appears to hit a new low. The story alleged that the Pentagon prevented US troops from reporting on Afghan police and militias' sexual assaults on children and punished US troops when they reported the abuse. The Pentagon at the time rejected the story but US lawmakers were sufficiently incensed to instruct the Pentagon's Inspector General to investigate and report to Congress on the issue. The findings of the Inspector General, far from reassuring anyone have exacerbated concerns about the attitude and conduct of the US military in Afghanistan. The Inspector General's report says US troops were told to ignore child sexual abuse in Afghanistan as a "culturally acceptable phenomenon". However, the report goes on to say that a review of "cultural-awareness training" did not lead to specific command or policy guidelines that expressly discouraged military personnel from reporting incidents of child sexual abuse. In some cases, US military personnel were told "nothing could be done about child sexual abuse because of Afghanistan's status as a sovereign nation". Further, military personnel were informed it was not a priority for the US command to discourage such practices and it was best "to ignore the situation and to let local police handle it". The Inspector General's report goes on to say the US army and air force training does not discuss paedophilia in Afghanistan but that of the navy and marines does. The navy training manual advises readers to control and overcome any frustration that they may experience during their deployments. The marines' manual on the other hand advises to be mentally prepared to encounter this 'attitude' and to move on. Similarly, several current or former service personnel told investigators they were told to ignore such behaviour. If they witnessed child sexual abuse, they were to let local officials and police know and not interfere with the locals. An interviewee said the reason given was that this would ensure continued cooperation with the Afghans. Another said the chain of command didn't care until the NYT report.

A more damning indictment of the US military's 'policy' would be hard to find. Many of those involved in this sordid business are powerful, well-armed warlords and police and militia commanders. For its expedient reasons, the occupying power either ignores the former or advises its personnel on the ground to report such incidents to the latter! Considerations of Afghanistan's sovereignty did not stop the US invading and occupying (continuing since) Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11. Nor did 'culturally acceptable phenomena' impede subsequent efforts to improve women's rights in Afghanistan, with some success. In response to the NYT report and the controversy it sparked off, the Martland Act was mooted to not condone child sexual abuse on any US military base or abroad, whether the perpetrator was American or foreign. However, it appears that in practice that remains a dead letter. One tragic consequence of the US command's preference for its soldiers to 'look away' when confronted with child sexual abuse was the suicide of a soldier subsequent to hearing the screams of a child being sexually abused in an adjacent room and his inability to intervene. Some military personnel have been punished for reporting such abuse in answer to their conscience. The US is very fond of lecturing the world on human rights and the highest values of its enlightened, democratic society. What the Pentagon Inspector General's report lays bare, however, is the hypocritical dark underbelly of the purported carrier of these values. Shameful isn't it.

the author