Afghanistan, child abuse and WikiLeaks

On December 2 the Guardian published a leaked cable dated 24 June, 2009 which reported on a meeting between the US Assistant Ambassador to Afghanistan and Hanif Atmar, then the Interior Minister of Afghanistan. One of the topics covered was the activities of a US contractor, DynCorp, retained by the Americans to train Afghan policemen.

Atmar was agitated about reports of what the American company had allegedly been up to. Here’s one account:

Prime among Atmar’s concerns was a party partially thrown by DynCorp for Afghan police recruits in Kunduz Province.

Many of DynCorp’s employees are ex-Green Berets and veterans of other elite units, and the company was commissioned by the US government to provide training for the Afghani police. According to most reports, over 95 percent of its $2 billion annual revenue comes from US taxpayers.

And in Kunduz province, according to the leaked cable, that money was flowing to drug dealers and pimps. Pimps of children, to be more precise. (The exact type of drug was never specified.)

So what went on at this US-subsidised ‘party’? The HoustonPress account says that it was “bacha bazi”.


Bacha bazi is a pre-Islamic Afghan tradition that was banned by the Taliban. Bacha boys are eight- to 15-years-old. They put on make-up, tie bells to their feet and slip into scanty women’s clothing, and then, to the whine of a harmonium and wailing vocals, they dance seductively to smoky roomfuls of leering older men.

After the show is over, their services are auctioned off to the highest bidder, who will sometimes purchase a boy outright. And by services, we mean anal sex: The State Department has called bacha bazi a “widespread, culturally accepted form of male rape.” (While it may be culturally accepted, it violates both Sharia law and Afghan civil code.)

For Pashtuns in the South of Afghanistan, there is no shame in having a little boy lover; on the contrary, it is a matter of pride. Those who can afford the most attractive boy are the players in their world, the OG’s of places like Kandahar and Khost. On the Frontline video, ridiculously macho warrior guys brag about their young boyfriends utterly without shame.

So perhaps in the evil world of Realpolitik, in which there is apparently no moral compass US private contractors won’t smash to smithereens, it made sense for DynCorp to drug up some Pashtun police recruits and turn them loose on a bunch of little boys.

In the tsunami of WikiLeaks coverage this cable has been largely overlooked. But it seems to me to be very revealing. This is not so much because it sheds light on the malign activities of some US contractors in Afghanistan (we know a lot about this already), but because of the light it sheds on the mores of the society that the US and NATO is attempting to shore up. One would have to be a deranged cultural relativist to regard as civilised a country which tolerates intolerable levels of female subjugation, and in which child abuse appears to be widely practiced and, in some cases, celebrated.

This was brought home to me in a conversation I had recently (before the WikiLeaks revelations) at a dinner party. The man sitting next to me was a retired British army Intelligence officer who had seen recent service in Afghanistan. We talked about the difficulties facing the US/NATO mission and about the impossibility of implanting democratic values in a country like that. At one point my companion told a story about a conversation he had had with an American General who was about to hold a meeting with a local Afghan warlord. The General requested a detailed briefing on his Afghan visitor. The officer asked how much detail was required. “Everything you’ve got”, replied the General. Well, said the Brit, the latest we’ve got is that he raped two young boys this morning”. And this was a guy that the Americans had decided they had to deal with.

Which brings me back to the real value of the WikiLeaks cache of leaked cables. It may be — as the Establishment maintains — that they don’t bring any earth-shattering revelations. But the steady drip-drip of cables like the one of June 24 is important not so much because the cables reveal the futility and immorality of the US/NATO mission in Afghanistan (though they do) but because they show that the US and NATO also know that it’s futile. Which means that the only reason we’re continuing to fund this doomed venture (at a cost of $2.8 billion a week, btw) is because our politicians cannot think of a way of extricating us.

LATER: Glenn Greenwald has an excellent piece in Salon on why the WikiLeaks are telling us things that we really needed to know.