Participation in the global community of nations has always required compromises, sometimes uncomfortable ones. How the United States confronts these issues generally depends on the current ideological temperament holding sway in the Oval Office and among the American people in general.
One thing any student of foreign affairs quickly learns is that when it comes to America’s security and economic interests, things get very complicated, very quickly. This is why, for example, we do business with China despite their rather dismal human rights record. This is why we are a strategic regional partner with the nation of Saudi Arabia, despite their enforcement of strict religious laws that result in the severe social and political curtailment of women’s rights.
Sometimes, however, the opportunity arises for the United States to stand unabashedly and unreservedly on the side of justice and civility, and we should always seize upon these opportunities without hesitation if we truly believe in the principles we espouse. Concerns about “cultural sensitivity” should not hold sway when egregious abuses of human rights are occurring.
If we have leverage in this kind of situation, we should use it, which is why a recent story  in the New York Times regarding child sex abuse in Afghanistan is so disturbing.
According to reports emerging from several American military outposts across the country, our fighting men are being told to ignore the sexual abuse of children by our Afghan allies. Those who refuse to turn a blind eye, like former Special Forces captain Dan Quinn, run the risk of career-ending repercussions.
While serving in Kunduz Province, helping to train local military and police forces, Captain Quinn received repeated complaints from locals about abuse being committed by the Afghan police he was working with every day.
There was the rape of a young girl that resulted in a one day jail sentence and her being forced to marry her assailant. There was the case of wages being stolen from junior officers in order to finance the rental of “dancing boys.” There was an honor killing that went unpunished, and finally the kidnapping and enslavement of a young boy by Afghan police commander Abdul Rahman.
In each case, Captain Quinn ran the information up his chain of command only to be told that he’d done his duty by reporting it and and to let it go. The story about a young boy kidnapped and chained to an Afghan police commander’s bed was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Quinn and a colleague confronted the man and assaulted him physically as a message that his conduct would not be tolerated by his American counterparts.
For this action, Quinn was relieved of his command and sent home. Quinn’s frustration at the hypocrisy at play in this situation is clear: “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. 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.”
This situation reflects a troubling and growing trend, whereby behavior otherwise condemned as uncivilized, backwards, cruel, and morally reprehensible is permitted in the name of “cultural sensitivity.” Apparently in Afghanistan, this means turning a blind eye to the desperate cries of children as they are abused and scarred for life at the hands of perverted men on a power trip.
When this happened in the Catholic Church the entire western world rose up in protest, as they should have. Why the deference to abuse in this instance? Are the Afghans deemed too irredeemably primitive that they are incapable of confronting and eradicating this terrible “tradition?”
Here’s a news flash. Sexual abuse of children by adults is wrong, in all places and at all times. It’s not a practice that can be justified by the locale or by the perpetrator. It is always wrong, period. No one should be made to turn a blind eye or stand by while such abuse occurs, especially not someone in the position to stop the abuse.
What could be more demoralizing to a young soldier whom we have placed in harm’s way than to stand idly by while our allies sexually exploit young boys? So much for fighting for our ideals.
Granted, in wartime soldiers have to make tough decisions. And yes, the Taliban are our enemy in Afghanistan; and yes, they perpetrate all manner of evil actions against their victims. But two wrongs do not make a right. American soldiers should not have to tolerate barbarism against children just because it is being perpetrated by our allies.
For American commanders to tell their soldiers to stand down in the face of such action is wrong, and if this is the behavior we are expected to “tolerate” in order to maintain our allegiance with Afghanistan, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether they should be our allies in the first place.
American military intervention abroad has always elicited strong opinions. Some hold very high standards regarding what justifies sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way. We can’t be the world’s policemen, such people often say. We can’t solve all the world’s problems.
Indeed, we cannot. But we are in a position to do something to alleviate the suffering and terror daily endured by young Afghan boys in the name of “bacha bazi,” and we should.
If the Afghan opposition is serious about wanting to resist the tyranny and fundamentalism of the Taliban, then they must be ready to accept common standards of human rights for all, children included. Anything less, quite frankly, should be unacceptable.
We should not require our soldiers to cast a blind eye and a deaf ear to such behavior. Otherwise, we soon will lose sight of what we are fighting for, and at the end of the day it won’t really matter whose side we are on.