The editorial appeared Monday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Last week’s sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar in the sexual abuse of multiple young female gymnasts underscores the responsibilities people in authority have to intervene when they know a sexual predator is victimizing children. In Afghanistan, such abuse has been occurring since the early days of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, yet American commanders have turned a blind eye.
Afghanistan is struggling for its survival against a relentless Taliban insurgency. But that’s no excuse for tolerating wanton sexual abuse by the Afghan security forces.
Afghans have been warring almost constantly since the 1970s – first against Soviet invaders, followed by warlord-led militia battles that ended when the Taliban achieved dominance in 1996. Thugs and criminals remained in control of anti-Taliban local militias across the countryside, including several who ordered boys to be kidnapped as sex slaves.
Those same militia commanders helped rout the Taliban and al-Qaida as allies in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Top U.S. commanders were aware that boys were held as sex slaves yet didn’t intervene. Last week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a declassified but redacted report outlining the wanton abuses that occurred on America’s watch.
A search of Pentagon records since 2001 yielded a spreadsheet with 9,704 rows of potential incidents of child sexual assault by Afghan security forces. The documentation in Pentagon files means commanders were aware of such abuses but kept it secret.
They likely would have continued tolerating the rape of Afghan boys had The New York Times not exposed the practice in a 2015 report. U.S. troops were quoted as having reported abuses to their superiors, only to be told to mind their own business.
“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,” Dan Quinn, a former Army Special Forces captain, told the Times. “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.”
Quinn beat up a U.S.-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. Quinn lost his command as a result. Other U.S. service members suffered repercussions for speaking out.
U.S. law requires the defunding of foreign military units known to engage in human rights abuses. The law was applied with significant success to root out abusers in the military forces of El Salvador and Colombia. The United States has waived the law’s application in Afghanistan, arguing that it could weaken the tenuous battle against the Taliban.
But, to paraphrase Quinn, what’s the use of defeating the Taliban if it only serves to empower an army of even worse abusers?