Watchdog: Troops say they were told to ignore Afghan child sex abuse
A new inspector general report released Thursday found that while the Pentagon did not have formal guidance discouraging the reporting of child sex abuse in Afghanistan, several troops say they were still informally told to ignore it.
“Following a review of DoD Instructions, Command Policy and Service guidance, we did not identify any guidance or policy that expressly discouraged personnel from reporting incidents of child sexual abuse,” according to the unclassified version of the Department of Defense inspector general report.
“In some cases, the interviewees explained that they, or someone whom they knew, were told that nothing could be done about child sexual abuse because of Afghanistan’s status as a sovereign nation, that it was not a priority for the command, or that it was best to ignore the situation and to let the local police handle it.”
Controversy erupted last year after news reports alleged a Pentagon policy kept U.S. troops from reporting when Afghan police and militia officials sexually assaulted children in a practice known as “bacha bazi” — or “boy play.” U.S. troops were allegedly punished when they did report the abuse.
The Pentagon repeatedly denied any such policy existed. But lawmakers were outraged and asked the inspector general to investigate.
Though the Pentagon did not have a policy against reporting child sex assault, some services’ cultural awareness training did identify child sex abuse as a culturally accepted practice in Afghanistan, according to the report.
Army and Air Force training do not discuss pedophilia in Afghanistan, but Navy and Marines training does. The Navy training “advises readers to control and overcome any frustration caused by cultural differences that they may experience during their deployments,” while the Marines one “tells Marines to be mentally prepared to encounter this attitude, and to ‘move on,’” according to the report.
Further, several current or former service members told investigators they were told to ignore the behavior.
In one example cited in the report, an interviewee said a mock Afghan village was set up in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where students were told to let local officials handle child sexual abuse.
“During the simulation, students were told that if they witnessed child sexual abuse, they should let the local officials or police know and not interfere with the locals,” the report said. “The interviewee said that the reason given as to why not to interfere was due to maintaining cooperation with the Afghans.”
Another interviewee told investigators that the chain of command didn’t care until The New York Times reported on the issue.
“The initial reaction of the staff was ‘we don’t really care about this, and we’re not going to do anything about it,’” the interviewee said, according to the report. “Then, after The New York Times article came out, and the issue got traction, we had to pay attention to it.”
A third interviewee said they had reported to the chain of command an incident involving a 14-year-old boy and a former Afghan Local Police commander, but that “there was an attitude of ‘Afghan problem, Afghan solution’ when it came to the removal of police officers.”
A fourth interviewee said they also reported to the chain of command, but that they were told, “There’s nothing we can do about it,” “It was out of our control,” “This is Afghanistan,” or “It’s their country.”
The inspector general further found there was no Pentagon training specific to identifying, responding to and reporting child sexual abuse by Afghan forces until 2015.
“The first express command guidance including a specific requirement to report instances of child sexual abuse was issued in September 2015, after media reports surfaced with allegations from U.S. personnel who had been deployed to Afghanistan,” the report said.
But there’s still no specific guidance from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy for reporting gross violations of human rights such as child sexual abuse, which the report said means there is “no certainty” all allegations have been reported to the U.S. military.
The inspector general identified 16 cases of child sexual abuse involving Afghan government officials reported to and tracked by the Pentagon between 2010 and 2016. But the report cautions that more may have been reported that investigators could not confirm because of inconsistent procedures and lack of unified guidance on the issue.
Eleven of those 16 were reported by the U.S. military to the Afghan government, the report added.
International law does not prohibit U.S. forces from intervening and using reasonable force to prevent child sexual assault, according to the report.
But personnel that use force could be subject to criminal complaints such as assault, it added. In that case, though, U.S. authorities would have jurisdiction over the personnel accused of assault, and U.S. law says that force may be used to defend against death or grievous bodily harm.
In a response included in the report, the Pentagon said the inspector general report makes clear there was no guidance telling troops to ignore child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.
“DoD strongly condemns the exploitation of children, including bacha bazi, a practice in which men exploit boys for social and sexual entertainment in Afghanistan,” acting undersecretary of Defense for policy Robert Karam wrote in the response. “Indeed, the draft report concludes that DODIG did not identify official guidance that discouraged DoD-affiliated personnel from reporting incidents of child sexual abuse.”
Still, Karam took issue with the report’s assertion that without specific guidance from his office, military personnel may be confused as to whether to report child sexual abuse.
“There should be no confusion,” he wrote. “U.S. military personnel do not require explicit guidance to know that child sexual assault in all cases is wrong, must not be tolerated and requires informing the chain of command.”