In 2001, when U.S. troops entered Afghanistan en masse, pedophilia had been largely suppressed by the Taliban. However, since then, numerous Pashtun men have been abusing the new freedoms they gained by molesting young boys, a practice casually referred to as bacha bazi - literally "boy play." This widespread, vile practice has been documented by an Afghan journalist in a report he prepared for a public television program, "Frontline." The program states flatly: "In an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, an ancient tradition has been secretly revived: Young boys sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, taught to dance and entertain, and used for sex."
A U.N. representative refers to this outrageous conduct as "a form of slavery [...] sexual slavery." The Frontline documentary shows that some of the boys are as young as 11. When they do not satisfy, they are beaten and in some cases murdered. A State Department report puts it starkly: "Child abuse was endemic throughout the country, based on cultural beliefs about child-rearing, and included general neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, and confined forced labor to pay off family debts." A US Defense Department report, "Pashtun Sexuality," quotes an Afghan saying: "Women are for children, boys are for pleasure." The "Frontline" investigation found Afghan police officers attending parties with their "dancing boys."
My review of numerous dispatches from Afghanistan found no sign that U.S. diplomats and generals are doing anything to get the Afghan government to protect these children, in sharp contrast to the strong promotion of women's rights to attend school and to leave home unsupervised and of voting rights for the general population.
The president should inform our representatives in Afghanistan that although we shall continue to put up with much that we do not condone, there are limits to our accommodations. We shall neither finance nor protect a regime that refuses to act against large-scale sexual abuse of children.
When asked about American military policy, the spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan, Col. Brian Tribus, stated, according to the New York Times: "Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law." The NYT adds: "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."
There was one American soldier who acted differently. Congress has asked the Pentagon to fully reinstate a decorated United States Army sergeant whose career status came under review after he hit an American-backed Afghan militia officer. The sergeant saw the officer abducting a boy and keeping him chained to his bed as a sex slave.
I understand that the U.S. has to work with whatever allies it can find and must be sensitive to cultural differences. However, as I see it, every decent human being and nation must observe a line, one that separates the world of accommodations and compromise from non-negotiable core values to which one adheres, whatever the costs and consequences. If letting the rich and powerful subject defenseless children to sexual slavery does not cross that line, what does?
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, was recently published by Routledge for Chatham House's series "Insights". To receive updates from ICPS, send an e-mail with the subject line "Subscribe" to email@example.com