The USA has a sick joke of a training slogan: “We teach you to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”
The grunts have revised this to a more accurate form: “We do the right thing only when no one is looking, because that’s the only way to avoid getting punished.”
Martland and Quinn began receiving numerous complaints about the Afghan Local Police units they were training — including the rape of a 14-year-old girl by a commander, whose ostensible only punishment for the crime was being forced to marry his young victim. One commander stole his troops’ wages to spend on dancing boys while another murdered his daughter for kissing a boy under the guise of preserving her honor.
Buckley and two other Marines were killed in 2012 after a boy who’d been staying on base with infamous Afghan commander, Sarwar Jan, shot them with a rifle.
“As far as the young boys are concerned, the Marines are allowing it to happen and so they’re guilty by association,”said the senior Buckley. “They don’t know our Marines are sick to their stomachs.”
Looking the other way is ostensibly customary, and going against the grain by speaking out or otherwise has consequences — as former Special Forces Captain Dan Quinn explained.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Quinn. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”
Quinn was relieved of duty and removed from Afghanistan after he beat up a U.S.-backed militia commander who kept a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.
“I picked him up and threw him on the ground,” he asserted.
Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland now faces forced retirement for the same incident. California Representative Duncan Hunter wrote the Pentagon’s inspector general:
“The Army contends that Martland and others should have looked the other way (a contention that I believe is nonsense).”
Postscript: No doubt there are various military historians who can elucidate the exact origins of the “do the right thing when no one is looking” slogan, but I’m too ADD to research it right now.
Furthermore and similarly:
KABUL, Afghanistan — In his last phone call home, Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. told his father what was troubling him: From his bunk in southern Afghanistan, he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they had brought to the base.
“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”
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Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.
Gregory Buckley Sr. believes the policy of looking the other way was a factor in his son’s killing. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban. But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages — and doing little when they began abusing children.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”
The policy of instructing soldiers to ignore child sexual abuse by their Afghan allies is coming under new scrutiny, particularly as it emerges that service members like Captain Quinn have faced discipline, even career ruin, for disobeying it.
After the beating, the Army relieved Captain Quinn of his command and pulled him from Afghanistan. He has since left the military.
Four years later, the Army is also trying to forcibly retire Sgt. First Class Charles Martland, a Special Forces member who joined Captain Quinn in beating up the commander.
“The Army contends that Martland and others should have looked the other way (a contention that I believe is nonsense),” Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who hopes to save Sergeant Martland’s career, wrote last week to the Pentagon’s inspector general.
In Sergeant Martland’s case, the Army said it could not comment because of the Privacy Act.
When asked about American military policy, the spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan, Col. Brian Tribus, wrote in an email: “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law.” He added that “there would be no express requirement that U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan report it.” An exception, he said, is when rape is being used as a weapon of war.
The American policy of nonintervention is intended to maintain good relations with the Afghan police and militia units the United States has trained to fight the Taliban. It also reflects a reluctance to impose cultural values in a country where pederasty is rife, particularly among powerful men, for whom being surrounded by young teenagers can be a mark of social status.
Some soldiers believed that the policy made sense, even if they were personally distressed at the sexual predation they witnessed or heard about.
“The bigger picture was fighting the Taliban,” a former Marine lance corporal reflected. “It wasn’t to stop molestation.”
Still, the former lance corporal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending fellow Marines, recalled feeling sickened the day he entered a room on a base and saw three or four men lying on the floor with children between them. “I’m not a hundred percent sure what was happening under the sheet, but I have a pretty good idea of what was going on,” he said.
But the American policy of treating child sexual abuse as a cultural issue has often alienated the villages whose children are being preyed upon. The pitfalls of the policy emerged clearly as American Special Forces soldiers began to form Afghan Local Police militias to hold villages that American forces had retaken from the Taliban in 2010 and 2011.
By the summer of 2011, Captain Quinn and Sergeant Martland, both Green Berets on their second tour in northern Kunduz Province, began to receive dire complaints about the Afghan Local Police units they were training and supporting.
First, they were told, one of the militia commanders raped a 14- or 15-year-old girl whom he had spotted working in the fields. Captain Quinn informed the provincial police chief, who soon levied punishment. “He got one day in jail, and then she was forced to marry him,” Mr. Quinn said.
When he asked a superior officer what more he could do, he was told that he had done well to bring it up with local officials but that there was nothing else to be done. “We’re being praised for doing the right thing, and a guy just got away with raping a 14-year-old girl,” Mr. Quinn said.
A portrait of Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. in his family’s home in Oceanside, N.Y. He was shot to death in 2012 by a teenage “tea boy” living on his base in Helmand Province. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Village elders grew more upset at the predatory behavior of American-backed commanders. After each case, Captain Quinn would gather the Afghan commanders and lecture them on human rights.
Soon another commander absconded with his men’s wages. Mr. Quinn said he later heard that the commander had spent the money on dancing boys. Another commander murdered his 12-year-old daughter in a so-called honor killing for having kissed a boy. “There were no repercussions,” Mr. Quinn recalled.
In September 2011, an Afghan woman, visibly bruised, showed up at an American base with her son, who was limping. One of the Afghan police commanders in the area, Abdul Rahman, had abducted the boy and forced him to become a sex slave, chained to his bed, the woman explained. When she sought her son’s return, she herself was beaten. Her son had eventually been released, but she was afraid it would happen again, she told the Americans on the base.
She explained that because “her son was such a good-looking kid, he was a status symbol” coveted by local commanders, recalled Mr. Quinn, who did not speak to the woman directly but was told about her visit when he returned to the base from a mission later that day.
So Captain Quinn summoned Abdul Rahman and confronted him about what he had done. The police commander acknowledged that it was true, but brushed it off. When the American officer began to lecture about “how you are held to a higher standard if you are working with U.S. forces, and people expect more of you,” the commander began to laugh.
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mc September 23, 2015
Val in Brooklyn. Several thoughts.1. I’ve heard U.S. officials mention Afghanistan, the rest of the Middle East, and our so-called national…
Southern Boy September 22, 2015
This is a great article, exposing the pedophilic nature of Afghan culture, especially when it comes to the sexual abuse of young boys. This…
SuperNaut September 22, 2015
Cultural relativism and moral equivalency; if you have engaged in either then this is the world you have created.Both are rampant in these…
SEE ALL COMMENTS
“I picked him up and threw him onto the ground,” Mr. Quinn said. Sergeant Martland joined in, he said. “I did this to make sure the message was understood that if he went back to the boy, that it was not going to be tolerated,” Mr. Quinn recalled.
There is disagreement over the extent of the commander’s injuries. Mr. Quinn said they were not serious, which was corroborated by an Afghan official who saw the commander afterward.
(The commander, Abdul Rahman, was killed two years ago in a Taliban ambush. His brother said in an interview that his brother had never raped the boy, but was the victim of a false accusation engineered by his enemies.)
Sergeant Martland, who received a Bronze Star for valor for his actions during a Taliban ambush, wrote in a letter to the Army this year that he and Mr. Quinn “felt that morally we could no longer stand by and allow our A.L.P. to commit atrocities,” referring to the Afghan Local Police.
The father of Lance Corporal Buckley believes the policy of looking away from sexual abuse was a factor in his son’s death, and he has filed a lawsuit to press the Marine Corps for more information about it.
Lance Corporal Buckley and two other Marines were killed in 2012 by one of a large entourage of boys living at their base with an Afghan police commander named Sarwar Jan.
Mr. Jan had long had a bad reputation; in 2010, two Marine officers managed to persuade the Afghan authorities to arrest him following a litany of abuses, including corruption, support for the Taliban and child abduction. But just two years later, the police commander was back with a different unit, working at Lance Corporal Buckley’s post, Forward Operating Base Delhi, in Helmand Province.
Lance Corporal Buckley had noticed that a large entourage of “tea boys” — domestic servants who are sometimes pressed into sexual slavery — had arrived with Mr. Jan and moved into the same barracks, one floor below the Marines. He told his father about it during his final call home.
Word of Mr. Jan’s new position also reached the Marine officers who had gotten him arrested in 2010. One of them, Maj. Jason Brezler, dashed out an email to Marine officers at F.O.B. Delhi, warning them about Mr. Jan and attaching a dossier about him.
The warning was never heeded. About two weeks later, one of the older boys with Mr. Jan — around 17 years old — grabbed a rifle and killed Lance Corporal Buckley and the other Marines.
Lance Corporal Buckley’s father still agonizes about whether the killing occurred because of the sexual abuse by an American ally. “As far as the young boys are concerned, the Marines are allowing it to happen and so they’re guilty by association,” Mr. Buckley said. “They don’t know our Marines are sick to their stomachs.”
The one American service member who was punished in the investigation that followed was Major Brezler, who had sent the email warning about Mr. Jan, his lawyers said. In one of Major Brezler’s hearings, Marine Corps lawyers warned that information about the police commander’s penchant for abusing boys might be classified. The Marine Corps has initiated proceedings to discharge Major Brezler.
Mr. Jan appears to have moved on, to a higher-ranking police command in the same province. In an interview, he denied keeping boys as sex slaves or having any relationship with the boy who killed the three Marines. “No, it’s all untrue,” Mr. Jan said. But people who know him say he still suffers from “a toothache problem,” a euphemism here for child sexual abuse.
Military officials on Tuesday stepped up their rebuttal to the claim by some U.S. troops that an American policy encouraged them to overlook the rampant sexual abuse of young boys that is common in Afghanistan, particularly by men in the Afghan security forces.
The top four-star commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, issued a rare statement Tuesday morning clarifying that there is no policy requiring American service members to turn a blind eye to the Afghan cultural practice known as “Bacha Bazi.”
“I personally have served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and am absolutely confident that no such theater policy has ever existed here, and certainly, no such policy has existed throughout my tenure as commander.”
Campbell said that “any suspicions of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to the chain of command, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are. The chain of command will take appropriate action under applicable law, as well as DoD and service regulations.”
“If the abuse involves Afghans, a report shall be forwarded to me through operations channels, copied to the Staff Judge Advocate, so that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can be advised and requested to take action.
“I have personally spoken with [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani on this issue and he made it clear to me that the Afghan government will not tolerate the abuse of its children, or any of its people, and will thoroughly investigate all allegations and administer justice appropriately,” Campbell said.
Officials were reacting to a New York Times report Sunday that U.S. military commanders looked the other way when Afghan allies tortured and abused young boys, as well as girls — sometimes on American bases — and punished several American service members who spoke out about the problem.
The issue was also raised Tuesday by retired Gen. David Petraeus, who was testifying on Capitol Hill about the U.S. mission in the Middle East.
Petraeus, who was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, said it as “absolutely reprehensible, unacceptable behavior” and there was no policy on the matter when he was there.
“It certainly was not something that was acceptable or even discussed, frankly, when I was commander of the International Security Assistance Force” in Afghanistan, Petraeus said.
“There is no way that that kind of behavior would be seen as helping to serve the Afghan people, and it is absolutely unacceptable,” Petraeus said.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pressuring the Pentagon to outline a more explicit policy on the issue.
A Florida congressman demanded the Pentagon make clear its opposition to child sexual abuse and offer some protection for troops who tried to stop the heinous crime while serving in Afghanistan. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called the revelations in the Times report disgraceful and disturbing.
“Protecting child predators is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as a nation,” he wrote in a letter Monday to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it’s even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it.”
Also on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, fired off a letter asking the Pentagon to provide “any and all existing Department of Defense legal guidance regarding the reporting of child abuse.” Hunter also recently asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to review the Army’s handling of a soldier who was punished for his aggressive response to the child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.
DoD is facing a lawsuit from a Marine who said he was wrongfully punished for drawing attention to reports of a high-ranking Afghan man’s alleged sexual assault of boys.
Earlier this summer, Hunter requested a review of facts in one of the retaliation cases for reporting sexual assaults, arguing that punishments handed out to at least one Army major ignored larger problems of corruption and abuse among Afghan officials.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a DoD spokesman, said at a Pentagon briefing Monday that the U.S. military finds the widespread reports of pedophilia among Afghan security forces to be “absolutely abhorrent,” but added that “it is fundamentally an Afghan law enforcement matter.”
“Those are reports that are given over to the Afghan government,” Davis said. “We monitor these atrocities closely, and we’ve repeatedly stood up for those who’ve suffered exploitation and denial of basic human freedoms.
“We work closely with the Afghan government and with their civil society and other organizations in Afghanistan to put an end to horrific practices like this. And we also incorporate human rights training into our training programs” with the Afghan security forces, Davis said.
Buchanan said that answer is insufficient.
“Fighting in a foreign theater should not require our service members to turn a blind eye towards criminal perversion,” he wrote. “Those who wear the uniform of the U.S. military should be commended, not punished, for upholding American values.”
A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.
“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”
Over the past decade, the phenomenon has flourished in Pashtun areas in the south, in several northern provinces and even in the capital, according to Afghans who engage in the practice or have studied it. Although issues such as women’s rights and moral crimes have attracted a flood of donor aid and activism in recent years, bacha bazi remains poorly understood.
With the looming withdrawal of NATO troops and a persistent insurgent threat, Afghanistan is in a precarious position. Innumerable tragedies have beleaguered rural Afghans throughout the past decades of conflict — perpetual violence, oppression of women, and crushing poverty have all contributed to the Hobbesian nature of life in the Afghan countryside.
While the Afghan government has been able to address some of these issues since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, archaic social traditions and deep-seated gender norms have kept much of rural Afghanistan in a medieval state of purgatory. Perhaps the most deplorable tragedy, one that has actually grown more rampant since 2001, is the practice of bacha bazi — sexual companionship between powerful men and their adolescent boy conscripts.
This phenomenon presents a system of gender reversal in Afghanistan. Whereas rural Pashtun culture remains largely misogynistic and male-dominated due to deeply-ingrained Islamic values, teenage boys have become the objects of lustful attraction and romance for some of the most powerful men in the Afghan countryside.
Demeaning and damaging, the widespread subculture of pedophilia in Afghanistan constitutes one of the most egregious ongoing violations of human rights in the world. The adolescent boys who are groomed for sexual relationships with older men are bought — or, in some instances, kidnapped — from their families and thrust into a world which strips them of their masculine identity. These boys are often made to dress as females, wear makeup, and dance for parties of men. They are expected to engage in sexual acts with much older suitors, often remaining a man’s or group’s sexual underling for a protracted period.
Evolution of Bacha Bazi
Occurring frequently across southern and eastern Afghanistan’s rural Pashtun belt and with ethnic Tajiks in the northern Afghan countryside, bacha bazi has become a shockingly common practice. Afghanistan’s mujahideen warlords, who fought off the Soviet invasion and instigated a civil war in the 1980s, regularly engaged in acts of pedophilia. Keeping one or more “chai boys,” as these male conscripts are called, for personal servitude and sexual pleasure became a symbol of power and social status.
The Taliban had a deep aversion towards bacha bazi, outlawing the practice when they instituted strict nationwide sharia law. According to some accounts, including the hallmark Times of London article “Kandahar Comes out of the Closet” in 2002, one of the original provocations for the Taliban’s rise to power in the early 1990s was their outrage over pedophilia. Once they came to power, bacha bazi became taboo, and the men who still engaged in the practice did so in secret.
When the former mujahideen commanders ascended to power in 2001 after the Taliban’s ouster, they brought with them a rekindled culture of bacha bazi. Today, many of these empowered warlords serve in important positions, as governors, line ministers, police chiefs, and military commanders.
Since its post-2001 revival, bacha bazi has evolved, and its practice varies across Afghanistan. According to military experts I talked to in Afghanistan, the lawlessness that followed the deposing of the Taliban’s in rural Pashtunistan and northern Afghanistan gave rise to violent expressions of pedophilia. Boys were raped, kidnapped, and trafficked as sexual predators regained their positions of regional power. As rule of law mechanisms and general order returned to the Afghan countryside, bacha bazi became a normalized, structured practice in many areas.
Many “chai boys” are now semi-formal apprentices to their powerful male companions. Military officials have observed that Afghan families with an abundance of children are often keen to provide a son to a warlord or government official – with full knowledge of the sexual ramifications – in order to gain familial prestige and monetary compensation. Whereas bacha bazi is now largely consensual and non-violent, its evolution into an institutionalized practice within rural Pashtun and Tajik society is deeply disturbing.
Pedophilia and Islam
The fact that bacha bazi, which has normalized sodomy and child abuse in rural Afghan society, developed within a deeply fundamentalist Islamic region of the world is mystifying. According to a 2009 Human Terrain Team study titled “Pashtun Sexuality,” Pashtun social norms dictate that bacha bazi is not un-Islamic or homosexual at all — if the man does not love the boy, the sexual act is not reprehensible, and is far more ethical than defiling a woman.
Sheltered by their pastoral setting and unable to speak Arabic — the language of all Islamic texts — many Afghans allow social customs to trump religious values, including those Quranic verses eschewing homosexuality and promiscuity. Warlords who have exploited Islam for political or personal means have also promulgated tolerance for bacha bazi. The mujahideen commanders are a perfect example of this — they fought communism in the name of jihad and mobilized thousands of men by promoting Islam, while sexually abusing boys and remaining relatively secular themselves.
The rampant pedophilia has a number of far-reaching detrimental consequences on Afghanistan’s development into a functional nation. The first — and most obvious — consequence of bacha bazi is the irreparable abuse inflicted on its thousands of victims.
Because it is so common, a significant percentage of the country’s male population bears the deep psychological scars of sexual abuse from childhood. Some estimates say that as many as 50 percent of the men in the Pashtun tribal areas of southern Afghanistan take boy lovers, making it clear that pedophilia is a pervasive issue affecting entire rural communities. Many of the prominent Pashtun men who currently engage in bacha bazi were likely abused as children; in turn, many of today’s adolescent victims will likely become powerful warlords or government-affiliated leaders with boy lovers of their own, perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
A second corrupting, and perhaps surprising, consequence of bacha bazi is its negative impact on women’s rights in Afghanistan. It has become a commonly accepted notion among Afghanistan’s latent homosexual male population that “women are for children, and boys are for pleasure.” Passed down through many generations and spurred by the vicious cycle created by the pedophile-victim relationship, many Afghan men have lost their attraction towards the opposite gender. Although social and religious customs still heavily dictate that all men must marry one or more women and have children, these marriages are often devoid of love and affection, and are treated as practical, mandated arrangements.
While the Afghan environment has grown more conducive to improving women’s social statuses, the continued normalization of bacha bazi will perpetuate the traditional view of women as second-class citizens — household fixtures meant for child-rearing and menial labor, and undeserving of male attraction and affection.
The third unfortunate consequence of bacha bazi is its detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, especially in the southern Pashtun-dominated countryside. Because pedophilia and sodomy were, and remain, a main point of contention between the Islamist Taliban and traditional Pashtun warlords, the widespread nature of bacha bazi likely continues to fuel the Taliban’s desire to reassert sharia law. The adolescent victims are vulnerable to Taliban intimidation and may be used to infiltrate the Afghan government and security forces.
The resurgence of bacha bazi since the Taliban’s defeat and the significant percentage of government, police, and military officials engaged in the practice has put the United States and its NATO allies in a precarious position. By empowering these sexual predators, the coalition built a government around a “lesser evil,” promoting often-corrupt pedophiles in lieu of the extremist, al Qaeda-linked Taliban. Going forward, the strong Western moral aversion to pedophilia will likely erode the willingness of NATO and international philanthropic agencies to continue their support for Afghanistan’s development in the post-transition period. As Joel Brinkley, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, asked: “So, why are American and NATO forces fighting and dying to defend tens of thousands of proud pedophiles, certainly more per capita than any other place on Earth?”
Despite the grave nature of the child abuse committed across Afghanistan, this tragic phenomenon has received relatively little global attention. It has been highlighted mainly in sporadic news articles and one Afghan-produced documentary, while other Afghan issues such as women’s rights and poverty are center stage.
From a human rights perspective, the pervasive culture of pedophilia deserves substantial international consideration due to its detrimental effects — the immediate and noticeable effects on the young victims, as well as the roadblocks it creates towards achieving gender equality and peace.
The only way to tackle both bacha bazi and gender inequality is to modernize Afghanistan’s rule of law system. Afghan officials have been scrutinized in multiple reports by the United Nations’ Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict for their failure to protect children’s rights. Although Afghan officials formally agreed to outlaw these practices in response to U.N. criticism in 2011, the government’s ability and willingness to internally enforce laws protecting children has been non-existent.
If a future Afghan government can achieve a balance between the Taliban, who strictly enforced anti-pedophilia laws but harshly oppressed women, and the current administration, which has put an end to the hard-line Islamic subjugation of women but has allowed bacha bazi to reach shocking levels, Afghanistan’s dismal human rights record may improve.
An additional strategy for combating bacha bazi is to attack the issue from an ethno-cultural standpoint. Identifying key tribal elders and other local powerbrokers who share the West’s revulsion towards such widespread pedophilia is the first step in achieving lasting progress. As is true with women’s rights, understanding Afghanistan’s complex social terrain and bridging its cultural differences is necessary to safeguard the rights of adolescent boys.
The Afghan government’s acknowledgement of bacha bazi and subsequent outreach into rural Pashtun communities, where the legitimacy of the government is often eclipsed by the power of warlords and tribal elders, will also be critical. The most important breakthrough, of course, will come when the Afghan government, police, and military rid themselves of all pedophiles. If the central government can ensure its representatives at the local level will cease their engagement in bacha bazi, the social norms are bound to change as well.
Eliminating this truly damaging practice will finally occur when a pedophile-free Afghan government is able to more closely connect the country’s urban centers to its rural countryside. Only then will a progressive social code be established. And if this evolved social code can incorporate the tenets of Islam with social justice and effectively marginalize the archaic and abusive aspects of Pashtun and Tajik warlord culture, there is hope for Afghanistan yet.
Chris Mondloch served as an analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps for five years and directed intelligence production for the Corps’ Economic Political Intelligence Cell in Helmand province in 2012.
Thanks to a tawdry investigation and controversial plea deal this month, David Petraeus will forever be known as the American general who gave over classified ‘black books’ to his mistress-biographer. But his real legacy appears to be playing out like a slow moving train wreck back in the provinces of Afghanistan.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in early March, Afghanistan is under siege by a “new generation” of strongmen, warlords, and militias that are terrorizing local populations. Their menacing presence only effectively differs from the Taliban in that they have enjoyed the complicity and support of U.S. forces—including former General Petraeus—and major elements of Afghanistan’s government.
So while Petraeus is busy advising the White House on what to do with Iraq—another country whose reconstruction he left unfinished—unchecked corruption and violence threaten to undo every last good thing the West has tried to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.
“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a March 3 release.
“Kabul and its foreign supporters need to end their toxic codependency on strongmen to give Afghanistan reasonable hope of a viable, rights-respecting strategy for the country’s development.”
HRW found, through numerous interviews with civilians, cross-checked with official inquiries and independent reporting, that Afghan Local Police (ALP) commanders were behind many of the human rights abuses. Petraeus, during his brief time as Commander of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan (2010-11), was the key facilitator of the ALP, calling it a “community watch” of sorts, and considered it critical to his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.
“This program mobilizes communities in self-defense against those who would undermine security in their areas,” Petraeus told congress in March 2011. “For that reason, the growth of these elements is of particular concern to the Taliban, whose ability to intimidate the population is limited considerably by it.”
It turns out that while Petraeus was burnishing his bio with black book fodder for Paula Broadwell’s 2012 hagiographical All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, his “community watch” was becoming a village horror show for Afghan civilians in a number of ways—right under the noses of the U.S. Special Forces who armed and trained them, and who in many cases insisted on appointing their commanders, sometimes against the locals’ adamant opposition.
“What has been put into this (HRW) report, everyone knew for years,” said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a Skype interview with TAC from Kabul. Not only the ALP, he said, but private militias, security companies, strongmen and their minions, have flourished because of their usefulness in the war against the Taliban.
Despite the numerous allegations of criminal activity and brutality committed against the population, he said, “leading U.S. military commanders continue to present themselves with these people in a very friendly manner.” For him, “this is really shocking. War is violent, but there are real excesses here that go far beyond any red line that is acceptable.”
By September 2012 Petraeus was long gone from the scene, and his vaunted ALP program was slipping into disgrace. While the ALP was credited for keeping the peace in some places, burgeoning complaints of abuse and corruption in others forced the U.S. Army to halt recruitment that fall. By then, the ALP was 16,000 strong nationwide, according to the New York Times. In its most recent report, HRW said the ALP managed to give legitimacy (and a source of income) to warlords, local strongmen, and illegal militias that had already enjoyed an unofficial “hands-off” approach under the former regime and its American partners:
Although the Afghan government outlined measures to prevent pre-existing militias from joining the ALP, a weak vetting process failed to achieve this, and the force has provided cover for armed groups already implicated in abuses…The result has been a pattern of impunity, abuse, and the consolidation of power and control of resources by a small elite group.
HRW has singled out some of the more infamous American allies, among them Abdul Hakim Shujoyi, who despite outstanding arrest warrants for the murder of more than a dozen people remained the de facto commander of the ALP in the central district of Khas Uruzgan as of June 2014. According to HRW,
Shujoyi was originally a member of the Afghan Security Guards (ASG) and directly worked with U.S. forces in Khas Uruzgan. U.S. Special Forces in the district reportedly insisted on his recruitment as the commander of the Afghan Local Police in Khas Uruzgan in early 2011, although he was not from the locality.
Shujoyi and his men are accused of raping, stealing, beating, setting fire to at least one person’s home, and killing 121 local men. In one incident in August 2012, his forces were accused of killing upwards of 17 people in one day, including the stoning of a 15-year-old boy.
An American spokesman denied any ties with Shujoyi at the time of the killings, and said U.S. Special Forces were not active in the area where they occurred. But despite the arrest warrant, Shujoyi still enjoys his freedom, and has been witnessed with U.S. forces since.
“Everyone has seen (Shujoyi) with the Americans,” one witness told HRW. In particular, according to the report, “he was frequently seen entering the international base in the district capital of Khas Uruzgan (known as Forward Operating Base [FOB] Anaconda).”
In 2013, Australian journalist Paul McGeough wrote that “a reputation as a fearless ‘Taliban hunter’ has earned enough U.S. military protection for (Shujoyi) to cast himself as a new warlord—even as the Americans were backing him into the leadership of a new grassroots community protection service, the Afghan Local Police or ALP.”
In other words, McGeough added, “Special Forces has emboldened and protected Shujoyi.”
Meanwhile, in Urgun province, Tajik “Commander Azizullah” made a neat shift to ALP chief after allegedly committing numerous crimes against civilians as a member of the Afghan Security Guards from 2008 to 2010, when the ASG was conducting combat operations with U.S. forces, according to HRW. It was then that he was first accused in a 2010 United Nations report of theft and beatings during search operations, detention and physical abuse of children, and arbitrary killing of civilians. This included one case in which he reportedly drove around with the dead bodies of three locals strapped to his vehicles, announcing they were terrorists, until they started to decompose.
When confronted with the charges in 2011, a NATO spokesman at the time told the The Independent there was “little information to substantiate what were essentially claims.”
Azizullah and the forces under his command joined the ALP in February 2011, according to the HRW report, “despite local objections that this would legitimize Azizullah.” Afterwards, “human rights abuses attributed to his forces continued.”
Likely the most infamous of the Afghan strongmen associated with the United States, Gen. Abdul Raziq is credited with both keeping the Taliban out of Kandahar, and running an elaborate network of ruthless security forces that made him wildly rich, and feared. Nothing, the report says, happens in the province without his knowing. Meanwhile, a UN report in 2013 accused Kandahar police of “disappearing” 81 people in just one year.
Overall, Raziq and his henchmen are accused of drug running, corruption, torture, and more. In 2011, journalist Matthieu Aikins uncovered a 2006 case in which Raziq and his men allegedly executed 16 rivals and dumped their bodies in the desert. Raziq dismissed the allegations as smears against his reputation. When asked, according to reports, U.S. officials have affected the same tone, preferring to refer to the charges as baseless rumors.
Raziq, 36, rose in power as police chief of his hometown of Spin Boldak after the 2001 invasion, but his support from former President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. catapulted him to rock-star status and head of security for Kandahar province, the epicenter of the Taliban insurgency. Dubbed “Our Man in Kandahar” in Aikins’ Atlantic profile, Raziq received Petraeus (five times), Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and other top Americans at his home in Spin Boldak. His men were trained by none other than Blackwater, and armed to the teeth by U.S. forces, according to Aikins.
“Ah, yes, General David … a good man,” gushed General Raziq, as he recalled the visits from Petraeus in a November 2014 interview with the New York Times.
Just last year, the new ISAF commander Lt. Gen. John Anderson seemed to be carrying on the tradition, as he was captured in a photo with Raziq, his arm slung over the smiling Afghan in a seeming show of camaraderie.
TAC reached out to the Pentagon for this story and received a brief but timely response about the standards applied to the ALP. From spokesman Maj. Brad Avots:
The U.S. military funds the salaries of Afghan Local Police who are under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Interior … In order to maintain international support and the trust and confidence of the Afghan people, (they) must demonstrate that they are effectively governed, respect the Rule of Law, and operate in accordance with the Afghan constitution and international obligations.
President Ghani is now trying to figure out a way to rein in “our man in Kandahar,” but it seems futile. Nasir Shansab, an Afghan-American author who spoke with TAC from Kabul, says he doesn’t have much confidence that Ghani, who has pledged to clean up corruption and bring war criminals to justice, will be successful.
He blames the U.S. for not encouraging better standards when they had the chance.
“They have simply looked the other way and never had the courage or willingness to tell the Afghan government there has to be rule of law. And I am very sad about that,” said Shansab.
“Right from the beginning the United States was here to win the war. They went to the warlords and armed them to wage the war. That pattern was established. And the warlords they all got rich and powerful because of the war and now they run the country the way they want to,” he said.
“That is the state of human rights in Afghanistan,” Shansab charged. “I hate to be so dark, but that is the truth of it.”
Ruttig says that while U.S. forces are withdrawing now, Petraeus’s legacy police are “shooting up like mushrooms.” They’ve taken to illegal tax collection to subsidize their ranks.
“There were a lot of formal precautions to take them under control,” Ruttig noted, “but it was clear to everyone who set up these precautions they were not going be as strong as they were on paper.”