Outrage is growing over the potential discharge of a Special Forces soldier from Joint Base Lewis McCord who beat an Afghan police commander accused of raping a young boy.
The practice of bacha bazi – an Afghan term for powerful men using adolescent boys for sex – and just what American troops have or haven’t done about it is getting renewed attention now, but the debate isn't new.
American troops in Afghanistan have known about the practice as long as the U.S. has been fighting there. Reports in the American media about the so-called "dancing boys" of Afghanistan date back to 2010 – NPR has reported on it, as has PBS Frontline.
But the story got new life late this summer when members of Congress and fellow Green Berets came forward to ask Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to intervene in the case of Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland.
In 2011, Martland and his detachment commander, Capt. Daniel Quinn, responded to a report of kidnapping and rape by an Afghan police commander.
Quinn told The News Tribune of Tacoma that a boy’s mother appealed to them for help and they brought the commander to their base to confront him.
Quinn told the newspaper that the Afghan commander admitted he had raped the boy, then laughed at them for being concerned. Quinn said that at that point they lost their tempers and beat him. There were varying reports on how badly the man was hurt.
Martland and Quinn were disciplined, and Quinn left the Army. Because of Martland’s rank, he was able to stay on, but now is targeted for being booted out in November in a military downsizing.
This week, the New York Times picked up the story and documented other soldiers’ complaints that they were told to ignore such abuses to avoid alienating militia allies in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Times’ editorial page called for a forceful response by the U.S. to stop such practices.
Defense Department officials aren’t commenting on specifics of Martland’s case. A Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. has no policy directing forces to overlook human rights abuses, but ultimately these types of sexual assaults on children are “an Afghan law enforcement matter.”
The U.S. military has a tough choice in Afghanistan – cracking down on this practice might endanger relationships with local leaders that could determine the course of war.
But this dilemma could be forcing U.S. solders like Martland to make a terrible moral choice: Do they accept child rape as one price of success on the battlefield?
As the battle over Martland’s potential discharge goes on in the U.S., the issue seemed to gain attention in Afghanistan.
President Ashraf Ghani this week said his government would do what it could to stamp out this practice, which he says is pervasive among many wealthy and prominent men there.