During my year in Afghanistan, I often heard the term “man-love Thursday”. Because Thursday was the last day of the Afghan work week (Friday being a holy day), Thursday night was when affluent Afghans engaged socially. Sort of like Friday or Saturday night in the states.
Part of the bacchanalia certain Afghans participated in was “bacha bazi,” the tradition of dressing young boys in girls’ clothes and have them dance for a group of men. Often times, these men use the boys for sexual favors. In 2010, PBS did an expose on the bacha bazi phenomenon and in 2012 the Washington Post explored the effect on boys, especially after they outgrow the men’s affection.
When the boys age beyond their prime and get tossed aside, many become pimps or prostitutes, said Afghan photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor, who spent months chronicling the plight of dancing boys. Some turn to drugs or alcohol, he said.
Recently, bacha bazi was again in the American news cycle. According to the New York Times, the stress of knowing the boys are sexually abused is taking a toll on certain US military members. They are returning to America conflicted and confused, struggling with the fact that they did not or could not save young boys from being exploited and molested. Often times, these US military members were even told to cooperate with the abusers in efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
The question these troops and the New York Times are asking is “what kind of Afghanistan are we rebuilding if children are being exploited?” It is a good question, but the answer is more complicated than people want to hear.
As a matter of fact, the answer is exactly what people don’t want to hear.
While child exploitation and molestation is terrible on the local level, it is insignificant on the national policy level. And that is the level American foreign actions usually deal with. Our actions are usually a three step process:
- Human Rights
Putting efforts on human rights before satisfying the higher priorities of security and democracy is a fool’s errand. Even the best UN Human Rights Commission will be forced out of a country where security is at a minimum. Security and preventing conflict and war is the utmost responsibility of mature global powers. Especially at a time when unstable regions become breeding grounds for international threats such as terrorism, drug trade, and the black market.
Think of security as the base of a triangle. From that base, society can build. A global community must have security regionally, nationally, then locally. As the vanguard of the global community, the United States is concerned with security from a regional level. Military operations are then deployed to provide or support security to the national level. Hopefully, once national security is established, law and a judicial system can provide the level of security for the local populace.
Unfortunately, establishing security is not a perfect science. Not even close. It is an art of alliance analysis. Sometimes you pick the right ones, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes your relationship sours over time. Sometimes it gets better. It is important to remember that international “high-level” relationships are still social. No different than “lower-level” relationships such as dating or marriage.
Throughout its history, the US has often backed forces who committed heinous human rights violations. Many, as a matter of fact. America has backed groups throughout the world who were not fair to minority groups and the defenseless. But so have other “imperial” forces. We like to think we are at least better than some of the European forces in past generations who willingly pitted one minority group versus the other in an attempt to leverage power. In Rwanda, for example,
When the European colonists conducted censuses, they wanted to identify the people throughout Rwanda-Burundi according to a simple classification scheme. They defined “Tutsi” as anyone owning more than ten cows (a sign of wealth) or with the physical feature of a longer nose, or longer neck, commonly associated with the Tutsi.
I wonder how many British, French, or other colonial soldiers returned scarred by what they saw and who they didn’t save. Perhaps it was easier for those troops to compartmentalize atrocities when they believed natives to be a lesser race, unable to comprehend Western social norms. They were “savages” to be controlled.
Thankfully, we don’t think like that anymore. But our evolution in social thought and awareness of human rights has made many more sensitive to the ills of broken societies. It is a good thing to want to change the world for good, but as the saying goes: “I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do.”
Our modern media is great. It is a wonderful thing that we know about the plight of the exploited and weak in far corners of the globe. That is an awareness no society has ever had before. Unfortunately for the guardians of justice and human rights, a lot of global culture is not at the level of enlightenment nor security needed to prevent local tragedy.
And if the trade-off means enrolling more girls in schools and getting women involved in government, is the abuse of young boys worth it? Educating and involving women in the social structure is proven to have long term positive effects. Women could have a positive effect in Afghanistan if they can ever attain that level of societal involvement. Investing in the compassion of women over the brutish nature of men could be answer to the plague of bacha bazi. Perhaps strong women could be the heroes those little boys need.
But nothing will happen without security from extremism and preventing those intent on creating chaos.
America can’t save everyone. Unfortunately, as it has for generations, rape and child abuse will happen. The only difference is 50 years ago, we didn’t have the media to report about it and people didn’t care. Now they do. But while we can lament the plight of Afghanistan’s dancing boys, we still have to remember the mission.
Michael Lortz is a strategy consultant in Tampa. He has been an intel analyst and CENTCOM contractor. He received his MA in International Affairs, BA in Creative Writing, and is finishing his MBA.
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