Monday, August 17, 2009


Lots of talk lately about the recent offensive in the Helmand River Valley down south. This has been tried before (twice) with at best mixed results. The problem seems to be that although the ISAF forces can defeat or drive away the Taliban,* there are too few reliable Afghan security forces and too little reconstruction capability to complete the “hold” and “build” portions of the classic “clear, hold and build” strategy.

*Not without casualties, as the British public is discovering to their dismay.

Indeed, according to some reports, the Afghan security forces, notably the Afghan National Police (ANP), are a big part of the problem. Local reports say that the ANP is corrupt (no surprise there), ineffective (again, not really surprising) and brutal. Of particular significance to the Western media have been the accusations from villagers in Helmand that the officers of the ANP are prone to kidnapping young boys and holding them for a month or two to use as sexual slaves.

Predictably, this gets people at the BBC and CNN all fired up. They present it as conclusive proof that the current government of Afghanistan and its Western-trained security forces are nothing more than brutal bandits, abusing the locals with perverse acts. Foreign Policy blogger Tom Ricks seems to go along with that theme, without examining the wider issue.

While possibly true, that story doesn’t quite hold up to a full examination. Even if we assume that the reports are true (and I for one believe they probably are), the story conceals a fact of larger significance.

To put it simply, and without going into too much disturbing detail, the ANP are not stepping outside the bounds of traditional Afghan culture here. It is common practice among some Afghan tribes, especially the Pashtun down in the more conservative south, for adult men to take pre-pubescent boys as, for lack of a better word, concubines. In Pashto, the practice is called bachabazi. Bacha roughly translates to “boy” and bazi is something like “play.”* The practice was less widespread during the Taliban years, but is actually an ancient custom.

*Although I doubt the boys in question consider this particular form of “play” to be very much fun.

The locals in Helmand, like the police, are almost entirely Pashtun. So, it’s possible that the locals are pissed not because the ANP are taking the boys per se, but because they’re taking the more attractive, highly-sought after specimens. Sort of like a horse-thief complaining that some other thief got there before them and took the best horses.*

*Incidentally, bachabazi in and of itself is not a crime under Afghan law, although the kidnapping bit would be. Stealing of horses, on the other hand, is punishable by execution. Go figure.

These are the people that NATO troops are trying to save from themselves. At some point, one has to ask if they’re really worth saving.

P.S. For anyone who thinks this might be an isolated circumstance, limited to the backward southern provinces, I would point out that less than a month after I arrived I had to fire one of my supervisors for this very thing. The disturbing bit was that several members of the staff came vigorously to his defense and tried to point out that this was simply part of Pashtun culture. I had to fight to get him fired, and could only manage to do so by pointing out that he was supposed to be on duty at the time, not off buggering little boys.

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