I stumbled through a farm of chest-high opium poppy stocks to reach his mud-and-wattle outpost on the outskirts of Tarin Kot, the capital of southern Uruzgan province that is teetering in the face of a Taliban upsurge. On its open roof, a slight teenager sat next to his hulking captor, stealing sad glances at me as he quietly filled our tea glasses. A shock of auburn curls jutted out of his embroidered pillbox hat and his milky eyes were lined with kohl. The commander flaunted him the way a ringmaster exhibits an exotic animal. “See my beautiful bacha (boy slave),” he said, blithe and casual, a gun dangling at his side.
The commander, an ally of the United States in the war against the Taliban, is not an anomaly. Hundreds of such outposts of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a front-line force armed and funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars, and other pro-government militias are believed to have enslaved young boys for dancing and sexual companionship, many of them kidnapped.
Freedom from the Taliban’s puritanical regime in 2001 also brought freedom to do “bacha bazi,” the cultural practice of sexual slavery and abuse of boys who are often dressed effeminately and whose possession is seen by Afghan strongmen as a marker of power and masculinity.
As the United States sinks deeper into the Afghan quagmire, preparing to send additional troops into a seemingly endless war, it is glossing over this hidden but pervasive abuse of children by its local allies. U.S. tolerance of this egregious inhumanity sends out the message that it is acceptable for U.S.-backed forces to keep child sex slaves.
It also has strong security implications. I reported last year how the Taliban are exploiting entrenched bacha bazi to infiltrate Afghan security ranks, effectively using child sex slaves — many of them brutally abused and hungry for revenge — as Trojan Horses to mount deadly insider attacks.
Institutionalized bacha bazi, described as culturally sanctioned male rape, is likely to continue unabated in the absence of any real deterrent. The United Nations has called on Afghanistan to urgently adopt legislation to criminalize bacha bazi and swiftly prosecute state officials guilty of the practice.
One senior official in Uruzgan described bacha bazi as an addiction worse than opium, saying commanders compete — and sometimes battle — one another to snatch pretty boys. Many prowl neighborhoods for boys “who have not seen the sun for years,” a cultural euphemism for unblemished beauty.
Last year when I unearthed a kidnapping epidemic of boys, it was disturbing to see local authorities pussyfooting around the issue and using security to rationalize their inaction. On the surface, President Ashraf Ghani has vowed zero tolerance for bacha bazi in security forces. But multiple officials in southern Afghanistan told me that any action against guilty commanders — a bulwark against insurgents — would anger them and cause them to abandon their posts with their loyalists, paving the way for the Taliban. There is therefore no desire to recover or rescue the innocent victims whose lives have been upended by this practice.
To completely understand this perverse logic, imagine an American sheriff with pedophilic proclivities openly snatching children — and instead of rescuing the victims and bringing the sheriff to justice, the administration pandered to his criminal behavior and justified letting him keep his job.
This heartless apathy explains why the commander I met was so shockingly blasé about keeping a sex slave. No senior official has ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi; the commander probably knows that he, too, will escape punishment.
Afghanistan has also become a living tapestry of institutionalized abuse on Washington’s watch. As the conflict unspooled over 16 years, abusive strongmen were propped up to fight insurgents — from unruly militiamen sowing tyranny in their fiefdoms to torturers in military uniforms.
Buttressing abusive allies is a strategy best described as fighting fire with fire, which is pushing Afghanistan deeper into instability and chaos.
Security is a legitimate concern, but turning a blind eye to crimes such as bacha bazi amounts to a serious contravention of America’s Leahy amendment, which bans U.S. assistance or training to foreign military units that fail to honor basic human rights.
The United States needs to deploy the leverages at its disposal in a country heavily dependent on it for aid to end this overriding culture of impunity. Additional troops and financial assistance must be contingent upon urgent reform and prosecution of abusers.
To win in Afghanistan, America cannot afford to lose its humanity.