AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A report by an independent government watchdog out this week shines a light on a very troubling aspect of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan. The report lists 5,753 cases of what it describes as gross human rights abuses by Afghan forces. Many of those abuses involve the routine enslavement and sexual abuse of underage boys by Afghan commanders. There's a term for this - bacha bazi, which roughly translates as boy play.
Joining us now to talk about this extremely disturbing report is Rod Nordland of The New York Times. Welcome.
ROD NORDLAND: Hello.
CHANG: So how common, at least according to this report, are these incidents, these young boys being sexually abused by Afghan commanders?
NORDLAND: You know, the report doesn't really figure out how common it is, but it does note that it's widely viewed as being widespread. And we hear about it all the time.
CHANG: Is there a cultural component to this? Is there a context that we may be missing?
NORDLAND: Well, I think the cultural component is that really powerful men can do whatever they want to within certain limits. I mean, they can't have a bunch of girls hanging out in their - on their base or in their camps. But what they can do is force young boys to dress up as girls and hang out there and use them as they will.
The bacha bazi problem is not just a question of our cultural values clashing with their cultural values. Most Afghans are appalled by this kind of behavior, and it's been a very effective recruiting tool for the Taliban because generally this is not behavior that the Taliban has ever tolerated.
CHANG: And there is actually a law, the Leahy Amendment, that cuts off U.S. or allows the U.S. military to cut off aid to foreign military units committing human rights abuses. So why hasn't the Leahy Amendment come into play more forcefully?
NORDLAND: Right. The Leahy Amendment obliges the U.S. government to cut off aid when there's gross human rights violations. And of course this rape of young boys is certainly considered a gross human rights violation. But what they have done routinely is used a loophole consisting of another law that says that any aid to the Afghan Security Forces should be dispensed regardless of any other U.S. law. That law was never intended to be used to basically vacate the Leahy Amendment, but that's in fact what has happened and happened in many, many cases.
CHANG: We're talking about human rights abuses even beyond the sexual abuse of these young boys, right? NPR's Tom Bowman, for instance, reported in 2015 that a very well-known Kandahar police chief had a reputation for torturing and even killing people. And again, the Leahy Amendment was not applied there.
NORDLAND: General Raziq - and in fact, they used that same loophole to allow his unit to continue to receive aid. And I don't think there's any serious player in the U.S. government, the U.S. military doesn't think that Raziq is a murderer and a rampant gross human rights violator.
CHANG: So is there any push inside the defense department to interpret this loophole differently so they can use a law like the Leahy Amendment to cut off aid to offending military units in Afghanistan?
NORDLAND: There is a push. And in the current defense appropriations bill which hasn't been passed yet - but the proposed one - it does take on board recommendations by the special inspector general that that loophole on - it's called the notwithstanding clause, the law that says no other law should prevent this aid from going forward. There's a proposal that that should never be used again. But that's not law yet.
And then there's still other exemptions they could use. They could declare that this is an important national security exemption and overlook the human rights violations. But in short, I don't think there's any quick solution to this problem at least with the current attitude.
CHANG: Rod Nordland is the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times. Thank you very much.
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