Addressing revulsion at the widespread sexual abuse of boys by powerful Afghan commanders, President Ashraf Ghani pledged on 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.
Mr. Ghani was unambiguous in his condemnation of the practice, calling it “unacceptable” and saying that 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,” Mr. 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 no easy feat. Though many Afghans find it repugnant, the sexual abuse of boys is so widespread that the practice even has a euphemistic name — bacha bazi, literally “boy play” — and is often ritualized in parties at which young boys are dressed as girls and forced to dance before they are raped.
The phenomenon has been well documented by human rights groups, journalists and others for years. But even more problematic for Mr. 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
, American-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, even on shared bases. Even high-level American 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 an American military report in 2011 listed the rape of boys as an issue that could cause tension between American and Afghan troops.
Most often, the immediate solution was to ignore allegations 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 soldiers said that rarely happened.
But 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 details how, in 2011, two American 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 Pentagon and Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of the American-led coalition, have said there is no formal policy of disregarding allegations of rape, pedophilia or any other kind of abuse.
“I want to make absolutely clear that any sexual abuse or similar mistreatment of others, no matter the alleged perpetrator or victim, is completely unacceptable and reprehensible,” General Campbell said in a statement. He also said he had ordered troops to send such accusations up the chain of command.
Mr. Ghani said in the interview that he and General Campbell spoke about the issue on Monday, and that 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,” Mr. 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.
Mr. Ghani acknowledged that “the larger cultural dynamic needs time.”
He cast the child sexual abuse problem as one rooted far deeper than present-day Afghanistan. “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 around 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 Mr. Ghani insisted, “I’m not going to tolerate this.”