In a story first reported by The New York Times, during the late summer of 2011, Sergeant 1st Class Charles Martland and Captain Daniel Quinn, both Green Berets, faced a dilemma that no person, even a soldier in war-torn Afghanistan, should ever face. The quandary stemmed from their work building trust with the communities they interacted with in Kunduz province in the country’s northeast.
This was probably a difficult and even somewhat dubious task, not only for cultural reasons, but also because most Afghans in that deeply tribal society view the heavily armed NATO troops not as the rescuers they are most often portrayed as in Western media, but as occupiers, just as they did the Soviets and the British before them.
On one of their patrols, the Green Berets had spoken through an interpreter to an Afghan mother and her young son, who told them that Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Local Police (ALP) Commander, had kidnapped and chained the boy to a bed and repeatedly sexually assaulted him for two weeks. When the boy’s mother tried to complain, she claimed that she was beaten by Rahman’s brother.
This came after Quinn and Martland had already seen two other ALP commanders receive no punishment for the rape of a 15 year old girl and another’s ‘honor killing’ of his own 12 year old daughter for the crime of kissing a boy. The latter also received no punishment according to a memo written by Martland and made public by Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.
As Martland also wrote, “Our ALP (Afghan Local Police) were committing atrocities and we were quickly losing the support of the local populace. The severity of the rapes and the lack of action by the Afghan Government caused many of the locals to view our ALP as worse than the Taliban.”
Reiterating and expanding on this point, Aaron Maclean, who had been deployed to the country as a Marine, recently told James Bovard of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation, “Taliban have long used reports of rapes committed by government agents as a recruiting tool. Indeed, among the elements of Mullah Omar’s rise to power was his reputation for taking violent action against those who kidnapped and raped children.”
As reported by multiple sources, when they approached higher ups in the American chain of command, the U.S. soldiers were told that Rahman’s unconscionable behavior was “an Afghan problem”.
As Captain Quinn later told CNN, “The reason we weren’t able to step in with these local rape cases was we didn’t want to undermine the authority of the local government, We were trying to build up the local government. Us acting after the local government fails to can certainly undermine their credibility.”
Seeing no results coming through official channels, the two decided to speak to the Local Police Commander themselves. Both said his reaction played a large part in what came next.
Rather than denying that he abused the boy, Rahman reportedly laughed and said something to the effect of, “So what? He’s only a boy.”
As reported by the Army Times, Captain Quinn then picked up Rahman and threw him, followed by Martland doing the same thing several more times. Further, “After one body slam, Martland said he kicked him in the ribs; after another, he put his foot on his neck and yelled at him. He continued picking him up and throwing him for 50 meters toward the gate of the camp.”
As a result of the incident, Quinn was sent home and soon left the military and, for a time, it appeared that Martland’s career would also be over. As later reported by NBC, in 2016, The Army Board of Correction of Military Records, aware of a public relations disaster in the making, confirmed that Martland, “would be taken off a list of officers to be removed from service.”
It’s wrong to assume, as some American commanders claimed, that this despicable behavior is accepted by most Afghans, as Captain Quinn told The Army Times in the article cited above, “I spoke to a few of the village elders and other ALP commanders and they all supported our actions, saying that we did the right thing because there would have been no justice from the local Afghan government. The Provincial Chief of Police later confirmed this.”
If Rahman’s behavior was considered acceptable in Afghanistan, the tribal elders would not have been talking about justice having been served after the beating, they would have been complaining about it.
While it’s well known that there is a tradition called “bacha bazi”, roughly translated as “dancing boys”, who are dressed up as women and often abused, it is something associated with elites, especially former warlords, not the ordinary villagers Quinn and Martland were dealing with on a daily basis.
In the case of bacha bazi, an anonymous person working for an NGO told the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “Bacha bazi is very sensitive, and those involved are in high positions within the Afghan military, which makes going after these individuals very difficult.”
As reported by CNN, a man known as Mestary told a PBS documentary crew about his time as a warlord in the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban before the American led intervention brought many of them into the government, “I had a boy because every commander had one. There’s competition among the commanders. If I didn’t have a boy, I couldn’t compete with the others.”
In late January, SIGAR was finally allowed to release its somewhat heavily redacted report on child sex abuse by Afghanistan’s security forces, something that, to give credit where it is due, was spurred on by The New York Times’ initial reporting about Quinn and Martland.
Unfortunately, the report was not as widely covered as the Times’ initial story and the questions it raises remain undiscussed, let alone answered. Also mostly undiscussed, despite the effort and money spent,increasingly large parts of Afghanistan are now under the control of the Taliban. This may be due as much to the corruption and in some cases outright evil of some of those in authority in the country as it has to do with the popularity of the Taliban’s ideas about government.
Skirting the Leahy Law
Besides the obvious demands of international law, the United States has an even more recent remedy for dealing with human rights abuses by the soldiers and security forces that it trains and funds, not just in Afghanistan but throughout much of the world. Besides sexual abuse, these crimes include murder and torture. It’s obvious that individuals so accused shouldn’t be given further training while their cases are ongoing; training which, it should be noted, often takes place in the United States.
According to the SIGAR report, “Since fiscal year (FY) 2002, the United States has appropriated more than $71.2 billion in assistance for the Afghan security forces. Federal statutes 10 U.S.C. 362 and 22 U.S.C. 2378d, commonly referred to as the “Leahy laws,” generally prohibit the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of State (State) from providing assistance to a unit of a foreign security force if the Secretaries of Defense and State have credible information that the unit committed a gross violation of human rights.”
What is called the Leahy Law, actually two amendments to other laws named for their principal sponsor, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, is supposed to prohibit any security forces found to have engaged in such crimes from receiving money from the U.S. military or Department of State. Unfortunately, there are work arounds that prevent the Leahy Law from being effective in ensuring that human rights are honored by those receiving funding from, and often working alongside, the U.S. military.
As explained in the SIGAR report, whose official title is “Child Sexual Assault in Afghanistan: Implementation of the Leahy Laws and Reports of Assault by Afghan Security Forces”, “There are two exceptions to the general prohibition in the DOD Leahy law. Under 10 U.S.C. 362, the Secretary of Defense may continue funding for training equipment, or other assistance to a unit implicated in a gross violation of human rights if (1) the Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of State, determines that the government of a country has taken all necessary corrective steps; or, (2) the equipment or other assistance is necessary to assist in disaster relief operations or other humanitarian or national security emergencies.”
The Department of Defense also uses a “notwithstanding clause” that allows it to continue funding a unit if it is found to be needed for ‘force protection’ (to ensure the safety of U.S. bases and troops) or is believed to be essential to U.S. national security, which, as we’ve seen time and again, can mean almost anything.
On this issue, the SIGAR report tells us, “Although DOD and State have confirmed that some units of the Afghan security forces have committed gross violations of human rights, the Secretary of Defense has used the notwithstanding clause in the DOD Appropriations Act to continue providing ASFF (Afghanistan Security Forces Fund) funding for select training, equipment, and other assistance to some of the implicated units.”
Worse, many of the foreigners in the country are contractors or, as they used to be called, mercenaries. As revealed by Wikileaks in 2010, one of the largest of these companies, Dyncorp, which had a contract to train police in Kunduz province, where Quinn and Martland had had their problems with ALP Commanders, had bought drugs and paid for ‘dancing boys’ for them.
In all, the SIGAR report claims there were seven reported incidents of sexual abuse of children by security forces funded by the United States and often other NATO countries, including Canada, which had its own inquiry into the issue in 2008. The relatively low number of reported cases of violations of the rights of children surprised one anonymous Afghan official interviewed by SIGAR, who also suggested that it was only low-level officers and soldiers charged with child abuse, not senior officers, who he said, “have money and power and can easily threaten someone to keep quiet about a crime.”
If it is to survive over the longer term, the government of Afghanistan will need to address the crimes of its own security forces against ordinary Afghans. Accountability will be difficult considering both the deep corruption of governments there at all levels and the fact that outsiders are footing the bill for many of these forces. Judging by their perpetual lack of success in protecting the other large population that is most at risk of being on the receiving end of human rights abuses, including rape, women, there doesn’t seem much hope that this will happen.
As reported by Al Jazeera just three years ago, “almost nine out of ten Afghan women face physical, sexual or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage.”
It’s all well and good for those who promote what amounts to an American Empire to claim that it’s necessary for unclear ‘humanitarian reasons’ or, even more obscurely, ‘democracy promotion’, but their track record at holding allies like the Afghan (or any other allied) government responsible for abuses is about as complete a failure as one can imagine. It may seem cynical to say so, but after almost 18 years of occupation, and even with major draw downs in forces, it sometimes seems that an entire country, one of the poorest in the world, has been turned into a kind of live fire training ground for U.S. and allied forces.
In truth, I don’t know if there is much that any of us as citizens of our respective countries can do to make our governments change their militarist strategy in such a faraway and difficult to understand place but, at the very least, some of the time being used to discuss the ill-considered tweets of famous people by the corporate press could be dedicated to the longest war in American history.