U.S. soldiers cannot keep ignoring crimes of Afghanistan allies

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The word "bystander" is defined as a person who is standing near but not taking part in what is happening. Synonyms include onlooker, spectator, observer, etc.

This is a word that I came across many times growing up. Every anti-bullying presentation that came to my school would tell us that if we saw someone being bullied, being a bystander was just as bad as being the bully. By simply observing and staying silent, a bystander is not only unhelpful to the victim, but also supportive of the bully. A bystander supports the victim’s suffering by not speaking up against it.

Therefore, it is shocking to hear that the United States military is turning a blind eye towards the rampant sexual abuse of young boys in Afghanistan. Despite accounts of Afghan men lying on the floors of military bases with children between them, and the knowledge that sexual abuse of young boys is common practice among powerful local leaders, American military leaders have decided not to intervene. They have preferred to stay on good terms with the Afghan police and militia and focus their combined efforts towards fighting the Taliban. In other words, they have chosen to allow children to suffer in the name of “good political relations.”

The United States military claims that it is trying to help Afghan citizens fight the Taliban in the name of establishing freedoms for said citizens. However, acting as bystanders to obvious violations of human rights — which America claims to champion — is counterproductive, hypocritical, and immoral.

Many local Afghan military commanders take part in a traditional practice known as “bacha bazi,” translated into English as “boy play,” according to PBS. Young teenage boys, usually from poor backgrounds, are bought from their families to be trained to dance and sing for private parties of wealthy Afghan men. But the practice can go far beyond this; the boys are often emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. Many local Afghan commanders even own a boy of their own as a symbol of power. If the boys try to escape, they are tracked down and killed.

Granted, the United States has been put in a tricky situation. In order to keep the Taliban from rising to power in Afghanistan again, the military must work with the local governments and militias. Stepping in to take a direct stand against bacha bazi could alienate those commanders who see the practice as a display of their power.

In order to appease both sides, Pentagon spokesman and Navy Captain Jeff Davis has said that the United States military finds the practice “abhorrent,” according to Reuters. He claimed that “a military member could make reports of human rights violations to their chain of command,” where the report would eventually end up in the Afghan government. Since the offending commanders fall under local Afghan jurisdiction, the thought is that by sending reports of human rights violations to local governments, the American military is taking care of the issue while washing their hands of any actual responsibility.

Officially, bacha bazi is outlawed. In fact, the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in the 90's was fueled in part by outrage over bacha bazi. Under Taliban rule, men suspected of partaking in the practice were executed. After the Taliban fell from power in 2001, bacha bazi remained banned.

Despite the law, however, it is practiced regularly as a widely recognized societal taboo. Many of the local Afghan prosecutors, who have said that there will be consequences for those who partake in bacha bazi, have been seen attending bacha bazi parties as guests.

Accordingly, it is unreasonable to assume that reporting the violations to the Afghan government will do anything to protect these boys. Unfortunately, this abuse is part of Afghan culture, and without outside pressure, those in power will not give up this practice.

It is up to the United States military, then, to take a stand on behalf of those who are unable to do so. Continuing to do nothing, to merely report and observe as innocent children are abused, makes them as guilty as those who see these young lives as objects and property. If the United States is truly trying to enable Afghani citizens to establish a government more humane and stable than the Taliban, then the American military cannot enable human rights violations as serious as those committed by the Taliban.

The United States needs to commit to enforcing laws against bacha bazi. It needs to put pressure on local Afghani governments, make sure that those who partake in bacha bazi face consequences, and appropriately punish those commanders with whom the United States is allied. In doing so, they will be creating a safer Afghanistan for children who have no say in the way that their country — or their lives — is run.

It is time for the United States military to stop being a bystander. It is time to stop enabling obvious violations of what are supposed to be universal human rights.