The American commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan on Tuesday rejected a report that U.S. soldiers were widely instructed to ignore the sexual abuse of boys by local Afghan troops.
A New York Times story on Sunday reported on the "policy" of U.S. service members to not intervene when allied Afghan commanders abuse children, even when such abuse occurs on military bases.
In a statement on Tuesday, Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. army general who heads the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, said no such command policy existed.
"I personally have served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and am absolutely confident that no such theater policy has ever existed here," Campbell said, "and certainly, no such policy has existed throughout my tenure as commander."
In Afghanistan, the practice of "bacha bazi" – which translates to "playing with boys" – is seen as a status symbol for many warlords and militia leaders who effectively enslave handsome prepubescent and adolescent boys to dance for them and perform sex acts. The practice has endured despite being illegal under Afghan and Taliban law.
Sunday's New York Times report recounted several instances in which U.S. servicemen had been uncomfortable with being told to ignore the practice. One soldier was even relieved from his command after beating up a militia commander who had kept a boy chained to his bed.
A spokesperson for the American military command in Afghanistan told the newspaper on Sunday that such matters would generally be issues for local police and there was no express requirement for U.S. military personnel to report such abuse, unless rape was being used as a weapon of war.
But on Tuesday, Gen. Campbell said he expected any suspicion of sexual abuse to be reported up the chain of command from both U.S. and non-U.S. personnel, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are.
Campbell said abuse involving Afghans would be reported to the local government with a request for them to take action.
"I have personally spoken with [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani on this issue and he made it clear to me that the Afghan government will not tolerate the abuse of its children, or any of its people, and will thoroughly investigate all allegations and administer justice appropriately," Campbell said.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on Monday also spoke out against the "abhorrent" practice.
"We've never had a policy in place that directs any military member or any government personnel overseas to ignore human rights abuses," he told reporters at a press briefing.
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters the U.S. was deeply concerned by the abuse of children by members of the Afghan defense force.
"This kind of behavior doesn’t just violate Afghan law and Afghanistan’s international obligations," Earnest said, "but it certainly violates I think pretty much everybody’s notion of what acceptable behavior is."