Though many Afghans find it repugnant, the sexual abuse of boys is so widespread that the practice has a euphemistic name: bacha bazi, literally “boy play.”
President Ashraf Ghani, addressing revulsion at the widespread sexual abuse of boys by powerful Afghan commanders, pledged Wednesday that his government would do what it could to stamp out a practice that is pervasive among many wealthy and prominent men in his country.
Ghani condemned the practice, calling it “unacceptable” and saying pedophiles would be prosecuted no matter who they were.
“Six-year-, 8-year-, 10-year-olds are raped, and I’m not going to tolerate this,” Ghani said from Kabul in an interview conducted by video conference. “To the extent to which the authority of the state can be harnessed to this task, we are going to focus on it and not permit it.”
That will be not be easy. Though many Afghans find it repugnant, the sexual abuse of boys is so widespread that the practice has a euphemistic name — bacha bazi, literally “boy play” — and is often ritualized at parties during which boys are dressed as girls and forced to dance before they are raped.
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The phenomenon has been documented by human-rights groups, journalists and others for years. But even more problematic for Ghani is that many of the perpetrators are commanders in the Afghan security forces, militia leaders or other powerful men who back the government. The Taliban, in contrast, banned the practice when they were in power.
Throughout the war in Afghanistan, U.S.-led forces struggled with how to handle the issue when the sexual abuse became apparent. Service members encountered it at police posts, at Afghan army bases and, at times, on shared bases.
Even high-level U.S. officials sometimes found themselves dealing with powerful Afghans who were widely accused of pederasty, such as Gul Agha Shirzai, a former provincial governor and an important power broker in Afghanistan who once enjoyed close ties with the United States.
The problem was so common that a U.S. military report in 2011 listed the rape of boys as an issue that could cause tension between U.S. and Afghan troops.
Most often, the immediate solution was to ignore accusations of child rape, according to soldiers and Marines who served in Afghanistan. The troops said they understood that the unofficial policy was to look the other way or, if necessary, to report any evidence they had to their superiors, who could then pass it to the Afghan authorities. Still, some troops said that rarely happened.
Not all troops on the front line — who, at the height of the war, often shared bases with Afghan forces — ignored abuse. An article published Sunday by The New York Times detailed how, in 2011, two U.S. soldiers beat up an Afghan commander who had been accused of raping boys and had laughed when confronted with the allegations. One of the soldiers was relieved of his command and then left the military, and the other is being forced out.
In the days since the report was published, the Pentagon and Gen. John Campbell, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, have said there is no formal policy of disregarding allegations of rape, pedophilia or any other kind of abuse.
“Any sexual abuse or similar mistreatment of others, no matter the alleged perpetrator or victim, is completely unacceptable and reprehensible,” Campbell said. He also said he had ordered troops to send such accusations up the chain of command.
Ghani said he and Campbell had spoken about the issue Monday, and the Afghan government was forming a committee to investigate all allegations of child rape.
“We will take action, ranging from removing people from the security forces to introducing them to the courts,” Ghani said.
Still, the Afghan justice system’s ability to take on wrongdoing stands in question, with many courts riddled with corruption or ineffective because the people they are targeting are powerful and well-connected.
Ghani acknowledged that “the larger cultural dynamic needs time.”
“Our Greek and Turkish heritage have generated periods of long practices,” he said. “Those require a large cultural-social dialogue that require purpose and energy.”
Alexander the Great conquered much of Afghanistan starting about 330 B.C., bringing with him ancient Greek cultural practices that died out in their homeland millenniums ago.
And though the sexual abuse of boys was a feature of life in the Ottoman Empire, it faded in the 19th century and is no longer accepted in Turkey.
In Afghanistan, though, the rape of boys persists, and Ghani insisted: “I’m not going to tolerate this.”