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Pentagon tried to block independent report on child sex among Afghan forces, Senate office says

Afghan police officers line up for tea at a police academy in Kabul. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

The Pentagon tried to block an independent assessment of child sex abuse crimes committed by Afghan soldiers and police, instead insisting on the creation of its own report offering a far less authoritative review of human rights violations perpetrated by U.S. allies, according to an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Although the report released Nov. 16 by the Defense Department Inspector General’s office (DODIG) reached the grim conclusion that, for years, U.S. personnel have been inadequately trained to report such crimes, a parallel investigation by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is thought to contain a much more detailed accounting of the problem’s severity.

But the results of SIGAR’s unreleased inquiry, which was requested by 93 members of Congress in 2015, remains classified at the Pentagon’s direction, raising questions about the military’s transparency and the extent to which it is complying with laws meant to curb such abuse.

The Pentagon responded with “resistance” when Congress tapped SIGAR to conduct the probe, said Tim Rieser, an aide to Leahy, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee whose namesake legislation, known as the Leahy Law, requires the U.S. military to halt assistance to foreign military units found to have committed gross human rights violations.

Instead, senior Pentagon officials argued that SIGAR, which since 2009 has produced dozens of reports exposing corruption within the Afghan government and incompetence among Afghan security forces, lacked the jurisdiction for this particular task, Rieser said.

“It’s fair to say there was an effort to discourage the investigation” by SIGAR, he said, adding that eventually the two agencies agreed to coordinate and release complementary reports, but that the Pentagon’s investigators did not fulfill promises to fully cooperate.

Kathie Scarrah, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, said that its investigators “heard no complaints throughout the evaluation about coordination” with SIGAR. The DODIG’s unclassified report “had significant findings,” she added, “which should be the focus of the attention.”

It’s unclear who within the Pentagon’s senior ranks resisted SIGAR’s involvement. A spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense declined to address questions about the two reports, citing the Thanksgiving holiday and the  “extensive research” that would be required.

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Afghan security personnel have been known to recruit young boys as servants, sometimes to use for sex. There is a broader practice in Afghan society to dress some boys as women and have them dance at gatherings. Known as bacha bazi, it was banned under the Taliban but revived after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

U.S. troops who have witnessed such abuse have complained about it for years. Still, it’s unclear precisely how deeply rooted the problem is among Afghan security forces. The Defense Department’s report said it reviewed 16 allegations from 2010 to 2016, but that the actual number is unknown because of inconsistent reporting procedures and “an overall lack of unified guidance on reporting and record keeping relating to child sexual abuse.”

Formal training to report abuse started in 2015, but investigators discovered problems with how U.S. troops report such crimes through channels meant to trigger violations of the Leahy Law. That potentially allowed offenders to avoid accountability.

SIGAR, which recently began facing new Pentagon restrictions on the distribution of other data it compiles about the Afghan security forces, cannot publish its report until cleared by Defense Department policy officials, who have the authority to vet and redact classified material for public release.

It’s unclear whether SIGAR documented more or fewer cases of child sex abuse. But in a statement, SIGAR’s head, John Sopko, said: “In reviewing the DODIG’s report, it’s clear that SIGAR’s report paints a much fuller picture of the issue. It’s information I believe the American people have a right to know.”

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Through his aide, Leahy said that initially he and other members of Congress chose SIGAR to lead the child sex abuse inquiry because of the agency’s ability to investigate from Afghanistan, its status as an independent agency created by Congress, and because Pentagon reports are not always made public.

SIGAR’s purview is broader, too, including fact-finding across the State Department and the Afghan government in addition to the Defense Department. The Pentagon’s mandate is to focus on the military.

SIGAR’s reports and its data are useful tools for researchers and international aid workers, said Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer with the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. The Pentagon’s decision to take over the child sex abuse investigation raises concerns, she said, because it is often less transparent than other agencies.

SIGAR’s report was completed and submitted to the Pentagon for review in February, five months before the Defense Department concluded its work. Yet the Defense Department’s report quickly passed through its review process and was published as SIGAR’s report has languished since July.

“It doesn’t seem [the Pentagon] is treating this with the urgency they should,” Leahy said. “It has already taken too long.”

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The turf battle highlights long-standing tension between the Pentagon and SIGAR. Sopko, championed in some circles as a relentless advocate for transparency, has been criticized by some defense officials for his methods and an institutional impulse to publicize his agency’s findings, such as the alleged failure of an expensive, questionable program to boost the Afghan economy by importing cashmere-producing goats.

The two agencies exhibit stark differences in their approach to fact-finding and their desire to reveal wrongdoings, said Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit organization.

SIGAR reports are written plainly with straightforward, easy-to-follow summaries, he said, adding that by contrast, the Defense Department’s reports can be excessively bureaucratic and a challenge to decipher.

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