In December 2012, Maj. Bill Steuber heard that three boys had been shot dead while fleeing the Afghan police headquarters. A fourth was shot point blank in the knee as punishment for trying to escape.
Steuber, a U.S. Marine in charge of the police advisory team in Sangin district, Helmand province, marched into the office of Qhattab Khan, the assistant district chief of police. Journalist Ben Anderson filmed the exchange for the new stomach-churning documentary, “This Is What Winning Looks Like.”
“Why was there a boy on that police base?” Steuber asks Khan, “What did that commander say to you?”
There’s sadness and anger in Steuber’s voice, because he already knows the answer: police commanders routinely abduct young boys to serve as “chai boys,” house servants who are also kept as sex slaves.
This extent of child rape in Afghanistan is hard to measure, but it’s a practice widely attested by journalists, human rights investigators, NATO soldiers, and Afghans themselves. As the White House considers how to wind down the war in Afghanistan, it’s worth reflecting on one of the saddest, most sordid of aspects of that sad and sordid war.
In 2009 the Defense Department was concerned that NATO soldiers were bewildered and outraged by the sexual practices of Afghan civilians and soldiers: seeing old men trying to fondle young boys, being shown cell phone pictures of children by their Afghan counterparts. The military commissioned an anthropological study, “Pashtun Sexuality.” In 2010 the San Fransisco Chronicle reported on the study’s findings:
For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it.
“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”
The authors of “Pashtun Sexuality” venture that the practice of bacha baazi is a function of a culture of extreme fear of female sexuality. The Chronicle article cites a 29-year-old who told a reporter, “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face?…We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”
The State Department has called bacha baazi a “widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape.” For instance, one military intelligence reservist related a story about an Afghan colonel who stood before a judge after he hurt a chai boy by violently raping him: “His defense was, ‘Honestly, who hasn’t raped a chai boy? Ha ha ha.’ The judge responds, ‘You’re right. Case dismissed.’”
Cracking down on this practice is nearly impossible, as the main culprits are often the very law enforcement and military personnel that the U.S. works alongside. In the documentary “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” (2010), police officials insist that sex traffickers of young boys will be arrested; later that day, two of the same officers are filmed at a bacha baazi party.
“I have told them not to keep them,” Khan insists to Major Steuber. Despite the fact that one of the boys tried to poison a police chief, he maintains that “these little boys stay willingly in the patrol bases and offer their asses in the night.”
Major Steuber proposes a joint raid the next morning to apprehend the child molesters. Later that night, it’s cancelled at the last minute by the Afghans. According to the documentary, Khan has since retired and no one has been charged or arrested.
“Try doing that day in, day out,” Steuber tells the camera later, “working with child molesters, working with people who are robbing people, murdering them. It wears on you after a while.”
Khan seems considerably less concerned.
“If they don’t f–k the asses of those boys, what should they f–k?” he asks at one point. “The p—–s of their own grandmothers? Their asses were used before, and now they want to get what they are owed.”