Imagine you’re a soldier in the U.S. Army and you witness an Afghan police commander sexually abusing a teenage boy. Do you intervene, as your conscience and values suggest you should, or do you stay out of it like your superiors have told you to?
For many current and former military members who served in Afghanistan, this situation isn’t a hypothetical. A New York Times article published last weekend on the paper’s website details the issue of rampant child sex abuse in Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas where local militia commanders have been put in power to help keep the Taliban at bay.
‘Bacha bazi,’ which translates literally to ‘playing with boys’ is a practice that has long been part of Afghan culture.
The U.S. military, in the hopes of maintaining good relations with the Afghan people with whom it is working, has instructed service members to look the other way when they witness of child sex abuse because it’s part of Afghan culture and that any allegations of sex abuse would have to be dealt with by Afghan law enforcement, not the U.S. military.
When two Army soldiers beat up an Afghan police commander who was abusing an 11-year-old boy, they were disciplined by the military. One has since left the service, and the Army is trying to forcibly retire the other.
Where do we draw the line between cultural respect and maintaining relations, and standing up for our values? Where do we draw the line between cultural respect and maintaining relations, and standing up for our values?
Colonel Cedric Leighton, former deputy director of training for the NSA, chairman of Cedric Leighton Associates, a strategic risk and leadership management consultancy, and a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” (HarperCollins, 2011) and "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield" (Harper, 2015)