While leaders of the West repeatedly declare that they are out to make Afghanistan into a society free of corruption, with a stable democratic government and one that respects human rights, they turn a blind eye to such moral basics as protecting children from systemic sexual abuse.
At the time the West helped liberate Afghanistan in 2001, pedophilia had been largely curbed by the Taliban. However, since then, numerous Pashtuns have abused the new freedoms to revert to a long tradition of molesting young boys.
This vile practice was documented in 2010 by an Afghan journalist who returned to his native country for public television's Frontline. The program starts with a flat statement: "In an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, an ancient tradition has been secretly revived: young boys sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, taught to dance and entertain, and used for sex."
A UN representative correctly refers to this outrageous conduct, a practice known as bacha bazi, as "a form of slavery [...] sexual slavery." The documentary shows that some of the boys are as young as 11, and when they do not perform, or are caught in a rivalry among jealous "owners," they are beaten -- and in some cases, murdered.
A State Department report on human rights abuses in Afghanistan puts it starkly: "Child abuse was endemic throughout the country, based on cultural beliefs about child-rearing, and included general neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, and confined forced labor to pay off family debts." It notes that "sexual abuse of children remained pervasive" and "most child sexual abusers were not arrested."
A U.S. Defense Department report entitled "Pashtun Sexuality" quotes a favorite Afghan saying: "Women are for children, boys are for pleasure." It notes that Pashtun culture fetishizes young men and that "'beautiful' beardless boys are coveted, almost as possessions, by men of status and position for sexual relationships." The report reveals that boys are forcibly removed from their homes, to travel with and be used by Afghan security guards. The Frontline investigation found that Afghan police officers attended parties with the so-called "dancing boys." President Karzai signed a UN agreement banning bacha bazi in early 2011. However, a July 2011 report by Musa Khan Jalalzai, the Executive Editor of the newspaper Daily Outlook Afghanistan, notes that the "Interior Ministry has failed to arrest powerful rapist warlords in Northern Afghanistan [emphasis added]."
As a sociologist, I fully realize that we cannot march into other countries -- countries which have different cultures and traditions -- and expect them to follow our values. I know that we must compromise. I regret to say that there may be little we can do to curb opium production in Afghanistan -- the country that now supplies 90% of the world's opium. I understand that if we tried to eradicate the poppies, we would deprive many Afghan farmers of a major source of income and drive them into the arms of the Taliban. I am distressed to realize that we must put up with a head of state who presides over a corrupt regime and holds onto power because he benefited from fraudulent elections. However, I understand that we seem unable to find a better partner.
However, every decent human being -- and nation -- must observe a red line, one that separates the world of accommodations and compromise from non-negotiable core values to which one adheres, whatever the costs and consequences. If selling children to the rich and powerful for sexual slavery does not cross that line, what does?
The president should inform our representatives in Afghanistan that, although we shall continue to put up with much that we disapprove of -- as we continue to hope that the Afghans will mend their ways -- there are limits to our accommodations. We shall neither finance nor protect a regime that refuses to act to curb large-scale sexual abuse of children.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). For more discussion, see icps.gwu.edu.