Suffer the Little Children

02/13/2011 06:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the late 1980s when the Afghan mujaheddin were still fighting the Soviet Union's Red Army, I went to Peshawar, Pakistan, as field director of what was called the Afghan Media Project. We trained Afghans in Western-style journalism and established the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC), the first pan-Afghan news agency. The Afghan videographers, photojournalists and writers were expected to meet international standards, and indeed their footage, photos and stories were picked up by media all over the world, including the BBC, Visnews, Agence France Presse (AFP), Sygma and others.

In addition to the material our teams brought out of the war zone, we debriefed mujaheddin commanders when they crossed back into Pakistan after operations against the Soviets. The AMRC director (then and now), Haji Saed Daud, was adept at inter-party diplomacy and managed to persuade commanders from all of the major factions to stop by AMRC for tea and conversation; in that way AMRC gleaned a lot of information about what was happening inside Afghanistan, which was difficult for even Afghan journalists to penetrate in those days.

One day our high steel front gates swung open to admit a small convoy of Toyota SUVs and pickup trucks. Kalashnikov-armed mujaheddin leaped from the trucks and formed a protective phalanx around their commander, a giant, bearded, turbaned Pashtun, as he strode toward our front door to be welcomed by Haji Daud for a debriefing session. Trailing along behind the commander was a slim boy of perhaps 14, his dark eyes made up with kohl, his gait as feathery as a dancing girl's. It was my first close encounter with bachi bazi, the Afghan tradition of powerful men keeping pretty young boys as sex slaves. There was no embarrassment and no attempt by the commander to disguise the obvious fact that this boy was his toy.

This is how far we have come in our ten years' effort to end human rights abuses in Afghanistan: the Karzai government has now agreed to ban the practice of bachi bazi by military commanders, and to stop recruiting children to serve as police officers. The New York Times reported that the Kabul government was "stung" when the United Nations included Afghanistan on a blacklist of countries using child soldiers, putting it in the company of Uganda and The Congo. But both the Afghan government and the Taliban recruit children to bear arms. The U.S. soldiers who fight the Taliban on a daily basis report that the enemy fighters are often in their mid teens. And Afghanistan's Directorate of Security told AFP that "over 80 percent of the 112 would-be suicide bombers detained in the country in the past nine months were boys aged between 13 and 17."

But of course it's not just the boys whose lives are brutalized by Afghan tradition. The plight of Afghan girls and women has been well documented. Girls attend school at their peril, especially in Taliban-dominated areas, even though a Taliban spokesman recently said the Taliban now accept the concept of educating girls. Young girls are often married off to much older men, sometimes virtually sold by impoverished parents, sometimes to strengthen ties between families, sometimes, as in Aisha's case, to pay off a "blood debt." Americans had a full frontal encounter with this practice when child bride Bibi Aisha's picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She had tried to run away from her husband, who hacked off her nose as punishment. Time initially got the story wrong, blaming the Taliban, but the outrage engendered by the story got Aisha a trip to the U.S. and a reconstructed nose. For some Afghans, that was too much documentation; we heard protests that cases such as Aisha's were "rare." If that were true, the women's shelters operated by NGOs would not be so full. Now the Karzai government seems bent on removing even these few safe havens, by taking over the operation of the shelters from the NGOs. Alissa Rubin reported in The New York Times that President Karzai's Cabinet has decreed that all shelters be run by the Kabul government, and that any woman who seeks shelter must endure a screening process by an eight-member panel that will decide if the woman should be jailed, or returned to her family, or, most unlikely, be given shelter. Any runaway girls or women who are returned to their families will be automatically suspected of committing adultery or prostitution, and will be ostracized, at best, or quite possibly killed.

Tell me again why we are spending so much blood and treasure for the Afghan government?