This needs a preface. I try very hard to be culturally sensitive, something I hope is clear from reading this blog. Yes, I like to have some fun, and frequently get outraged, at the antics of societies and governments in other parts of the world and at different points in history, but certainly no more (and, as far as outrage is concerned, much less) than I do with respect to my own government and society in the present day. My general lefty political outlook and my training as a historian either lead me to this position or are themselves informed by it; I’m not sure which way the correlation works. But I want to be clear that I think respecting other cultures is generally a good thing, and that’s especially true when you’re trying to endear your country to an entire nation of people. So I would agree, for example, that US military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan need to be cognizant of the culture there and work very hard to avoid causing offense.
Now, that said, what the hell is going on here?
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.
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 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’s cultural sensitivity, and then there’s aiding and abetting atrocity. This is the latter. The Pentagon and the White House assure us that there’s no policy in place requiring US service members to ignore allegations of sexual misconduct by our Afghan partners. I suppose that makes liars of the service members whose careers have suffered because they tried to do something to stop these abuses from taking place, or the Marine lance corporal who was killed by an Afghan boy who may have been driven to pick up a weapon and start shooting people by the abuse to which he had personally been subjected.
These are local bigwigs who have been set in place by the United States who are raping children (the article mentions assaults on girls as well), and whose behavior is being excused and defended by the United States because we don’t want to “impose cultural values” on the Afghan people. The problem with that logic is that, in most cases, the acts of these warlords are being reported to the Americans by the Afghan people themselves. They’re the ones we’re supposed to be trying to win over to Truth, Justice, and the American Way so that they don’t offer support (or their own service) to the Taliban, or ISIS, and we refuse to protect them from the monsters we’ve set over them because somehow that makes us culturally sensitive. If you’re an Afghan family whose children are being brutalized by one of these American proxies, could the Taliban really be any worse? Actually, scratch that; we know the Taliban is demonstrably preferable:
In many cases, especially with drug trafficking and corruption, the response from American officials has often been that ordinary Afghans do not view the problems the way Westerners do, and that trying to clean up the Afghan government could well destroy it. Cases of torture and murder by the Afghan security forces, which have been documented by human rights groups and the news media, have often been overlooked for fear of undercutting the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Though some Americans have tried to write off the practice of raping boys, which was described in an article in The New York Times on Monday, as a cultural difference between Afghans and Westerners, many Afghans say that they, too, find it shameful and wrong. (In fact, the Taliban banned it when in power.)
America has never been that great at picking its partners, but a simple rule of thumb would be that, if you find yourself allied with serial child rapists, you probably need to rethink your relationships. This isn’t a binary situation; there’s absolutely no reason to believe that it’s the abusers or the Taliban, with no other alternative, and there’s no reason to believe that “cleaning up the Afghan government could well destroy it” when those “ordinary Afghans” are the ones asking for it to be cleaned up. In different circumstances, it would be entirely justified to say that this is an Afghan problem that needs to be solved by the Afghan people, but this problem happens to be one that America foisted on the Afghans when it recruited and supported these local warlords as a bulwark against the Taliban. America caused this, America is responsible, and America is being blamed.
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