National Security, Pragmatism, and Human Rights

A variety of media sources have reported a practice in Afghanistan calledbacha baziBacha bazi consists of taking young boys from their families and forcing them to entertain men, a process that often includes their molestation. Some, such as Michael Lortz in a recent post on The Bridgeclaim that the kidnapping and rape of Afghan boys by the United States’ Afghan allies is insignificant compared to the accomplishment of national security goals, implying that stopping bacha bazi will interfere with the accomplishment of our mission. But failing to prevent our allies from recreationally kidnapping and raping Afghan boys will hinder the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan.

…failing to prevent our allies from recreationally kidnapping and raping Afghan boys will hinder the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan.

Pragmatically placing mission accomplishment ahead of human rights does have a degree of hard-nosed, realist appeal. Insisting that we must fight wars in populated areas without causing any collateral damage is foolish, and unlikely to succeed. But accepting the risk that accidents will happen is a far cry from condoning criminal acts that cause American efforts to lose credibility in both Afghanistan and the United States. One of the hard-fought lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that our lines of effort cannot succeed as linear, sequential steps (i.e. implementing security, establishing a functioning democracy, then worrying about human rights). Instead, we need to examine our operating environment holistically, with each line of effort affecting the others. If we make security our sole first priority while ignoring human rights, the Afghans whose rights we disregard are unlikely to support our efforts. Attempting to establish security in an area where the population opposes the government without addressing why they do so is perhaps more of a fool’s errand than trying to improve human rights and security at the same time.

When security forces kidnap and rape children, it undoubtedly damages whatever trust the population has for the government. While bacha bazi is a trait of some parts of Afghan culture, not all Afghans find it acceptable. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly true for the families of the kidnapped young boys, as highlighted by Anand Gopal. Afghans respond to criminal acts by looking to the authorities for help. If the government’s security forces are the source of the problem, and American forces routinely turn a blind eye, the Afghan people have a short list of actors who have both the power to stop the problem and a history of doing so. It is dangerous to ignore any practice that causes Afghans to turn to the Taliban for assistance.

Allowing Afghan National Security Forces to participate in bacha bazi without any repercussions doesn’t just hurt American efforts in Afghanistan. The American population’s support for the war is a resource that military and political leaders must guard as closely as the Afghan population’s support for their government. It is the resource most likely to determine if we remain engaged in the struggle in that country. Even if ignoring our allies’ crimes somehow didn’t impede local success in Afghanistan, it would likely lead to a loss of domestic support for the war as media outlets inevitably ran stories that highlight American tolerance for human rights violations. If the military chooses to pursue a course of action, or by inaction make it complicit in events that run grossly counter to the American people’s values, they will not support its efforts.

If…inaction make[s American forces] complicit in events that run grossly counter to the American people’s values, [American society] will not support its efforts.

The ugly, underlying belief behind claiming that ignoring bacha bazi is an acceptable cost of doing business is that acts like this are acceptable because they only happen to Afghans. Few Americans would ignore the practice if the victims were American service members, contractors, or American children. Condoning the practice dehumanizes Afghans, an act that runs counter to the United States’ professed values, and the values the American military strives to embody.

Human rights and security are not mutually exclusive options in Afghanistan. Advances in one area support advances in the other. The United States’ military should not sit idly by while some of our partners commit heinous crimes. Doing so will prevent us from accomplishing our goals in Afghanistan, not make them happen more quickly. But even if ignoring human rights helped create a secure environment more quickly, we should question if this equates to accomplishing American policy objectives. Permitting child molestation should never be the cost of doing business. If it is, we need to ask what exactly our business has become.

Justin Lynch is an officer in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.