On 5,753 occasions from 2010 to 2016, the U.S. military reported accusations of “gross human rights abuses” by the Afghan military, including many examples of child sexual abuse. If true, U.S. law required military aid to be cut off to the offending unit.
Not once did that happen.
That was among the findings in an investigation into child sexual abuse by the Afghan security forces and the supposed indifference of the U.S. military to the problem, according to a report released Monday by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR.
The report, commissioned under the Obama administration, was considered so explosive that it was originally marked “Secret/ No Foreign,” with the recommendation that it remain classified until June 9, 2042. The report was finished in June 2017, but it appears to have included data only through 2016, before the Trump administration took office.
The report released Monday was heavily redacted, and at least in the public portions it did little to answer questions about how prevalent child sexual abuse was in the Afghan military, and how commonly the U.S. military looked the other way at the widespread practice of bacha bazi, or “boy play,” in which some Afghan commanders keep underage boys as sex slaves.
“Although DOD and State have taken steps to identify and investigate child sexual assault incidents, the full extent of these incidences may never be known,” the report said, referring to the departments of Defense and State.
SIGAR said it had opened an investigation into bacha bazi at the request of Congress and in response to a 2015 New York Times article that described the practice as “rampant.” The article said that U.S. soldiers who complained had their careers ruined by their superiors, who had encouraged them to ignore the practice.
“DOD and State only began efforts to address this issue after it was raised by The New York Times,” said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general. “And even after that story, the sufficiency of policies they’ve put in place and the resources they’ve committed seem questionable. When Congress passed the Leahy laws they prioritized the issue of gross human rights violations. As our report clearly shows, both agencies failed to live up to that task.”
A former Special Forces officer, Capt. Dan Quinn, who beat up an Afghan commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave, said at the time that he had been relieved of his command as a result. “We were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did,” said Quinn, who has since left the military.
Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, a highly decorated Green Beret, was forced out of the military after beating up an Afghan local police commander in Kunduz who was a child rapist. Martland became incensed after the Afghan commander abducted the boy, raped him, then beat up the boy’s mother when she tried to rescue him. Congressional inquiries apparently led to Martland’s reinstatement.
The Times article also cited the suspicious death of Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr., a U.S. Marine who was killed at a checkpoint where he was stationed with a notorious commander who had a retinue of bacha bazi boys. Buckley had complained about that commander and was killed, along with two other Marines, by one of the commander’s boys.
The SIGAR report made no mention of the cases of Buckley, Quinn or Martland, and it appeared to have interviewed only three unnamed U.S. soldiers who reported being aware of the practice, which many soldiers and Afghan officials have told journalists they know to be widespread.
As of Aug. 12, 2016, the Defense Department was investigating 75 instances of gross human rights violations, seven involving child sexual assault, but even Defense Department officials acknowledged that that was a small portion of the total, the SIGAR report said.
Under the Leahy Law, U.S. military aid funds must be cut off to any foreign military unit implicated in gross human rights violations, which includes the practice of bacha bazi, with its enslavement and rape of young boys. But another provision of U.S. law, called the “notwithstanding clause,” says that Afghan military aid should be available “notwithstanding any other provision of law.”
The SIGAR report said that the “notwithstanding clause” had been used repeatedly to evade cutting off military aid to Afghan units.
“DOD’s continuing to provide assistance to units for which the department has credible information of a gross violation of human rights undermines efforts by U.S. government officials to engage with the Afghan government on the importance of respect for human rights and rule of law,” the report said. But it also said no evidence had been found that U.S. soldiers were ordered to look the other way as a matter of policy, or that their commanders condoned the bacha bazi practice.
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have repeatedly denied that there was any policy to condone child sexual abuse.
The SIGAR report recommended restricting the use of that “notwithstanding clause” to evade the provisions of the Leahy Law, and a draft defense appropriations bill supports that recommendation.
The practice is so widespread that at least one of the 2014 Afghan presidential candidates was a onetime CIA-backed warlord, Gul Agha Shirzai, who was widely accused of being a pedophile who keeps bacha bazi boys.
President Ashraf Ghani vowed to end the practice in a 2015 speech, but there have been few, if any, prosecutions by the Afghan authorities for bacha bazi practices. Shirzai is now the minister of border and tribal affairs in Ghani’s government.