Ignoring Abuse of Afghan Children Is a Strategic Failure
More than morality at stake
The Afghan police commander laughed at them. But Capt. Dan Quinn and Sgt. First Class Charles Martland didn’t find anything funny about the situation.
Throughout their deployment, members of the U.S. Army Special Forces detachment under Quinn’s command became troubled by the behavior of the Afghan Local Police forces they were supposed to be mentoring. The team reported several incidents — one involving a police commander who raped a teenage girl — to their commanders and to Afghan authorities.
In each case there was either no consequences or a slap on the wrist.
But late in the deployment, a woman came to the soldiers’ base. She told them an ALP commander chained her son to a bed and raped him, then beat her. She begged the Green Berets for justice.
When Quinn and Martland confronted the ALP commander, he readily admitted to doing it and even joked about it. Furious, Quinn and Martland shoved him to the ground and allegedly beat him.
Not long after, Army brass reprimanded both soldiers and sent them home. Quinn left the Army, while Martland became an Army scuba instructor in Florida where he continued to receive high marks. He previously received two Bronze Stars for valor.
But the incident remained in his files, and the Army decided it was enough to warrant kicking Martland out through its force reduction program. He defended his actions in a January 2011 letter to the Army Human Resources Command, stating he and Quinn “felt that morally we could no longer stand by and allow our ALPs to commit atrocities.”
On Oct. 28 the Department of Defense’s Inspector General office released an announcement that it will be investigating cases of Afghan officials abusing children, and whether American officials could have — or should have — done more to stop it.
The investigation comes after a series of allegations made headlines, as several American military personnel face discipline for either whistleblowing or taking unauthorized action against predators.
The most high profile case has been Martland’s. Nov. 1 was to be his last day on active duty, but the Army is currently reviewing his case on appeal after a media storm and pressure from congressmen, including fellow Afghanistan war veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.
While the decorated special operations warrior may very be vindicated, the case remains part of a troubling chapter of America’s longest war.
Many American officials have defended the military’s hands off approach to Afghan forces committing rape, insisting that it’s a cultural issue and a matter for Afghan law. But many of the Afghan police tasked with enforcing that law are in fact guilty of much of the abuse. And they do so while receiving American training, weapons and funds.
Several experts and special operations veterans War Is Boring spoke to argued that allowing rape isn’t merely a moral failure, it’s a strategic one that undermines America’s mission in Afghanistan — and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Afghan culture.
A dishonorable act
Forms of pederasty involving relationships between influential men and young boys aren’t new and they’ve never been limited to central Asia. “You see this going all the way back to Greece and Rome,” explained anthropologist Thomas Barfield, an Afghan culture specialist at Boston University.
But he said war and weak rule of law have allowed it and other forms of abuse to thrive.
In Afghanistan, the practice of “bacha bazi” — meaning “boy play” — is typically associated with rich and powerful Afghan men, some of whom use it as a means to flaunt their wealth and power. One form of bacha bazi involves concerts in which teenagers and boys dance for older men who then sexually abuse them.
“You cannot try to impose American values and American norms onto the Afghan culture because they’re completely different,” Col. Steve Johnson told the Tacoma News Tribune in August. “We can report and we can encourage them. We do not have any power or the ability to use our hands to compel them to be what we see as morally better.”
But while bacha bazi has existed in Afghanistan for generations, Barfield argues that calling it a “cultural norm” is misleading. He said that while powerful men may take part, it’s not something that Afghan culture celebrates.
“If you’re talking to regular people they wouldn’t find it acceptable,” he said. “It violates Islamic law and cultural norms.”
Many special operations veterans who’ve spent time living among Afghans have come to the same conclusion. “When you get to the point where you have to admit that this is something ‘powerful men’ do, you’re automatically admitting this isn’t normal,” said one veteran.
Barfield recalled a murder he learned about during one of his visits as a researcher in Afghanistan. Afghans told him about how an enraged man had killed his brother after learning he was participating in bacha bazi. “The story of these two brothers was considered a family tragedy,” he said. “Afghans have a very strong conception of honor and this is a stain on that honor.”
Barfield said that while some elites will take part in or watch these acts, most would deny taking part. “It’s something people would rarely admit to,” Barfield explained. “It’s actually used as a pretty common insult, to accuse powerful people of bacha bazi.”
Bacha bazi comes in various forms. During his field research, Barfield interviewed what he called “professional bachas,” typically young adults and teenagers who make a living in a seedy underworld often discussed in whispers.
“If you want to go to see a dancing boy concert they’re usually held out in the middle of nowhere,” Barfield explained.
“But in this case what we’re actually talking about is kidnapping,” Barfield said of the scandal that’s rocked the Pentagon.
Decades of war in Afghanistan have given rise to a much more predatory class of pederasts. Barfield explained that for some powerful Afghans, bacha bazi can be a way of demonstrating their might and asserting that rules don’t apply to them.
“[These people are often] warlords and commanders, so these are people who are used to making their own rules,” he said.
Rape and other crimes were hallmarks of both the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and subsequent Afghan Civil War of the 1990s. When the Taliban seized power, its puritanical worldview demanded an end to vices. One of the group’s top priorities was putting an end to bacha bazi. They executed many of the worst offenders, sometimes publicly.
One Special Forces veteran explained in a conversation with War Is Boring that many Taliban fighters were also once raped by older men, and that for some it was huge reason why they joined the movement. “When the Taliban came to power they put a stop to this shit,” he said.
The militants considered it part of their campaign against immorality, particularly a crackdown on gays and lesbians. However, men who partake in bacha bazi don’t typically consider themselves gay. “Most of these men would consider themselves straight,” Barfield explained.
But the Taliban’s moral campaign soon extended much further. The Taliban banned music, women’s education, kite flying, most sports and destroyed anything the group deemed “un-Islamic.” The goodwill the Taliban earned among Afghans from its crackdown on pedophiles and rapists quickly faded as the group’s repressive puritanical rule took shape.
Many welcomed American forces as they ousted the Taliban after 9/11. Schools reopened and kites returned to the skies.
But American troops and operatives often had to work closely a motley collection of Northern Alliance fighters, Pashtun rebels and other armed groups. The Americans soon learned that not all were as trustworthy as others. And some of them had dark pasts that would soon come to shape Afghanistan’s future.
A symptom of corruption
Afghan children have long been central to the narrative of the war in Afghanistan. When the Taliban was ousted in 2001, American officials touted the return of Afghan children to schools. Educating the next generation was a major emphasis — the children of today will be the leaders of Afghanistan tomorrow.
But with new opportunities came the return of old problems. Former warlords became military commanders, police officers and politicians. “It reflects that the Americans didn’t know who they were dealing with,” Barfield explained. “They unwittingly allowed some of these bad actors to regain power.”
Barfield said that provincial politicians and warlords would often exaggerate their ties to the Americans and present themselves as stronger than they actually were.
“They’d say ‘do as I say or I’ll send the Americans to burn down your village,’” Barfield explained. “The Afghans didn’t necessarily have the information to know that they were lying … the Americans of course had no idea.”
Corruption has been endemic in the new Afghanistan with aid money constantly going missing or wasted on lavish projects. The quality of Afghan security forces has been inconsistent. Soldiers and police officers often do not receive regular paychecks and must depend on shoddy equipment, a consequence of corruption. There’s also problems with abuse and misconduct.
Some Afghan troops and police have been known to engage in extortion, smuggling and kidnapping. In many cases that’s included the kidnapping and sexual abuse of children — sometimes even on U.S. bases. And that was far from a secret before Martland’s case blew up.
In 2012, a 17-year-old Afghan boy kept on a U.S. Marine base by police commander Sarwan Jan got ahold of a weapon and killed three Marines in the base gym. Prior to the killings, junior Marines — including some of those killed — had expressed concerns about Jan. The commander had a long history of corruption and child abuse.
A year later Vice documentary This Is What Winning Looks Like portrayed U.S. Marines candidly telling filmmaker Ben Anderson that the Afghan police they work with regularly kidnap and rape children — and frequently murder them.
The Marines expressed frustration that nobody seemed to take the problem seriously despite their repeated reports.
Johnson, who was a battalion commander with the 1st Special Forces Group at the time Martland and Quinn beat the Afghan policeman, has defended the decision to discipline the two. Johnson asserted the soldiers beat the Afghan commander nearly to death.
However, other Afghans — including a well regarded interpreter — allegedly told officials the injuries were minor and that the commander was walking around the next day.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened. The case was never put through the military criminal justice system and the Afghan police commander later died in a Taliban ambush.
The crux of the arguments against Martland and Quinn is that they acted rashly and potentially could have damaged relations with the Afghans cops — and possibly drive them to join the militants.
One former Green Beret told War Is Boring that the actions of the Afghan police would reflect directly on the advisers. After all, the ALP is trained, paid and equipped by the Americans. According to the veteran, the team had to show the Afghan villagers that they too cared about honor, otherwise villagers might start supporting the Taliban.
“When [Martland] beat the shit out of that police commander, that’s actually something a lot of Afghans would really respect,” Barfield said. “That’s a form of justice that Afghans understand very well.”
Playing by the rules
“I think this really reflects the state of law and order in Afghanistan as a whole right now,” Barfield said. “After 30 years of war, it’s allowed these sorts of bad actors to thrive.”
In the years since Martland and Quinn left Afghanistan, the military has put more and more emphasis on the ALP. These militia-turned-police played a huge role in the security of Kunduz … as well as its recent fall to Taliban militants.
These militias were responsible for protecting the people of Kunduz and maintaining order. But were also notorious for extortion, theft, assault and of course … bacha bazi. The Taliban took advantage of resentment among the locals to reestablish a foothold in the area before delivering a humiliating blow to Afghan forces this summer.
During an interview with War Is Boring about his book The Tigers and The Taliban in 2013, Danish army veteran Lars Ulslev Johannesen explained how corruption and instability drove many Afghans to sympathize with the militants, even those who disliked their repressive ideology.
“Predictability is important,” Johannesen said. “They know the Taliban rules, and prefer them even though they do not like them, because they know what they need to do in order to survive.”
Since the Taliban fell, there have indeed been strides in education — and Afghan artists and activists have far more freedom than they’ve known in decades. But when police kidnap and rape the children with impunity, it fundamentally undermines the rule of law and the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s fledgling government.
For many of the soldiers who fought there, despite the battles they won, corruption and sexual abuse undermines America’s purpose and reason for being in the country. “We’re not being outfought,” one veteran bitterly remarked during research for this story. “We’re being outgoverned.”