A Dark Side Of "Gay Culture"-- In Traditional Afghanistan
How do you go into a relatively primitive traditional culture and demand it change because it doesn't meet our 21st-century standards? I can remember arguing with progressive congresswomen who wanted to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan to help liberate Afghan women. We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of years of ingrained behavior tied to religion, culture and the most intimate of social relations. Soldiers aren't going to make it happen; they're just going to kill people and be killed.
My times in Afghanistan, in 1969 and again in 1972, were awesome, and a total culture shock. I mean total. And I was reminded of them over the weekend when the NY Times ran a story about bacha bazi, traditional Pashtun pedophilia that was supposedly banned under the Taliban but is back in full swing now. And it upsets American soldiers there.
“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”We looked at this five years ago on my travel blog when I wrote about my own experiences seeing it. When I first got to Afghanistan in 1969, having driven in my VW van from London, my strongest immediate thought, other than how unbelievably strong the hash was, was that no matter how far I had traveled in space, I had traveled much farther in time-- straight backward. I was thousands of miles from my parents' home in Brooklyn, and what felt like as many thousands of years back in time. I remember writing to a friend that I was feeling like I was living in the Bible (Old Testament).
Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene-- in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.
The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban. But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages-- and doing little when they began abusing children.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did-- that was something village elders voiced to me.”
The policy of instructing soldiers to ignore child sexual abuse by their Afghan allies is coming under new scrutiny, particularly as it emerges that service members like Captain Quinn have faced discipline, even career ruin, for disobeying it.
After the beating, the Army relieved Captain Quinn of his command and pulled him from Afghanistan. He has since left the military.
Four years later, the Army is also trying to forcibly retire Sgt. First Class Charles Martland, a Special Forces member who joined Captain Quinn in beating up the commander.
“The Army contends that Martland and others should have looked the other way (a contention that I believe is nonsense),” Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who hopes to save Sergeant Martland’s career, wrote last week to the Pentagon’s inspector general.
In Sergeant Martland’s case, the Army said it could not comment because of the Privacy Act.
When asked about American military policy, the spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan, Col. Brian Tribus, wrote in an email: “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law.” He added that “there would be no express requirement that U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan report it.” An exception, he said, is when rape is being used as a weapon of war.
The American policy of nonintervention is intended to maintain good relations with the Afghan police and militia units the United States has trained to fight the Taliban. It also reflects a reluctance to impose cultural values in a country where pederasty is rife, particularly among powerful men, for whom being surrounded by young teenagers can be a mark of social status.
Some soldiers believed that the policy made sense, even if they were personally distressed at the sexual predation they witnessed or heard about.
“The bigger picture was fighting the Taliban,” a former Marine lance corporal reflected. “It wasn’t to stop molestation.”
Things have changed a little since then. I lived in a "village" (two family compounds off a barely demarcated dirt track) for a winter up in the Hindu Kush, where no one had ever heard of the United States, and no one had ever experienced electricity. Some four decades later I'm not sure if they've experienced electricity yet, but I'd bet you they've heard of the United States.
When you travel to, let's say, "exotic" places like Afghanistan, you're better off leaving your cultural judgments in check. There's no way to reasonably compare our cultural standards to the ones that govern their lives. I got used to the concept, for example, of two good cleanings a year-- one in the spring and one in the fall, something very different from the swim, jacuzzi, steam bath and shower I do in some combination every day here in L.A. Better to just roll with the punches.
However, there was something I experienced a couple of times in Afghanistan which I just couldn't swing with. It was pretty horrifying. They call it bacha bazi, and my experience of it came at two weddings, one in Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, which I believe was the fourth biggest town in the country, and one up in the Hindu Kush, the land time forgot. Bachas are young dancing boys. We'll come back to this cultural artifact in a moment, but here you'll find what Wikipedia says about it.
You don't ever see the womenfolk in Afghanistan. My closest friend got married while I was there, and for several months I lived in his house and spent virtually all of my time with him. Everyone used to joke that we were brothers. I never saw the girl he married, not once. In the same house! Nor was she-- or his mother or sisters-- at the wedding. Well, that isn't exactly accurate. They had their own party in the women's part of the house. But it wasn't exactly separate-but-equal, just separate.
Big steaming platters of rice with meat and vegetables were brought out by male servants-- actually slaves, but no one called them that-- and everyone dug in with their fingers, food rolling down everyone's beards back onto the platters. Yum, yum. When the men were done eating, the leftovers were fed to the servants and dogs, although I don't remember in what order, and then what was left from that was sent to the women.
Meanwhile we had song and dance, from boys who looked like they were between 12 and 16, a troupe from somewhere who were hired to entertain at parties. They were wearing women's dancing clothes, more or less; they all had big heavy farmer boots on. And they all had their eyes smeared with kohl and some kind of rouge substitute. While they danced-- kind of alluringly, truth be told, everyone was hootin' and hollerin'. No one was drunk, but everyone, every single person, was high on hash.
At one point the groom's grandfather suddenly jumped up, apparently unable to restrain himself for another second, grabbed the youngest, smallest bacha and dragged him behind a building and raped him. It was gruesome to hear, but it didn't seem to put any kind of a damper on the party at all. The rest of the troupe kept dancing, and everyone else just ignored the commotion and enjoyed the festivities. It's part of their culture.
Ten minutes later Grandpa and the 12-year-old came back from around the building, straightening their clothes. The bacha seemed to feel his dignity was affronted, but he jumped right back into the line and danced away the rest of the evening as though nothing had happened. I'm not sure what happened afterward, but from what I heard, all the boys were raped (more or less).
And although these people definitely have heard of America now, they still enjoy a little bacha bazi as part of their cultural heritage, especially the wealthy men, although wealth is a relative thing. Whoever is exercising power gets himself a young bacha or two (or a half-dozen) to keep as sex slaves. Frontline did a special on the phenomenon by journalist Najibullah Qurasishi. You may find it difficult to watch, but it will certainly give you an idea about a not-uncommon aspect of Afghanistan, a country the U.S. military is occupying for no apparent purpose and with no apparent positive effect.