‘Bacha bazi’ presents cultural challenges for U.S. troops

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

On the coattails of a September New York Times article that seriously questioned the U.S. foreign policy position to ignore the practice of bacha bazi in Afghanistan, IU undergraduate and former U.S. Marine Miles Vining shared his experience regarding the gap between high-level policy and the reality of what happens on the ground. Cultural barriers often make bridging the gap extremely difficult, Vining said.

Bacha bazi, literally meaning “boy play,” is Afghan slang for the sexual abuse of boys age 12 to 21, usually by Afghan military and police commanders. The boys are often referred to as tea boys, may perform dances at bacha bazi parties and typically live with their owner.

Miles Vining on deployment

Miles Vining on deployment

The practice drew particular American outrage when The New York Times reported that the abuse often happens on U.S. military bases by the Afghan troops and police who receive U.S. funding and are stationed there.

“How do we deal with bacha bazi?” said Vining, referring to current U.S. foreign policy and military procedures. “We just don’t touch it.”

Vining presented a lecture, “The U.S. Military’s Response to the Dilemma of Bacha Bazi in Modern Afghanistan,” on Wednesday in the Global and International Studies Building. Vining completed two combat deployments to the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, serving as an automatic rifleman and tactical interpreter, among other positions.

The U.S. military has a hardline nonpermissive cultural interaction policy in Afghanistan, he said. This means that all U.S. troops are taught repeatedly before they are deployed to be especially sensitive toward women, mosques, the month of Ramadan and detainee conduct. Never make eye contact with women, never go inside a mosque, never ask Afghan troops to patrol during Ramadan and never treat detainees poorly.

“It was this same policy of complete cultural non-interaction that led to allowing bacha bazi to be left alone and ignored by the U.S. military,” Vining said.

He said American troops in Afghanistan work along a fine line, cradling the respect from the community that allows their security operations to run successfully.

“If we had violated any of these cultural boundaries, searching women or mosques, etc., we would have compromised the relationship with the local communities, which are absolutely vital for safety and success,” Vining said. “Bacha bazi is seen in the same nonpermissive cultural interaction category.”

At the platoon level, that left Vining and other troops without a means to interfere. But even if they could intervene, bacha bazi can be difficult to spot.

“The New York Times article makes it sound like all the bacha are chained to beds, screaming out for help,” Vining said. “And while that does happen, most bacha are just hanging out on base.”

After looking back on photos from his deployment, Vining counted six teenage boys who he is now sure were bacha bazis. But while stationed in Afghanistan, he knew of only two, since none of the boys showed clear signs of abuse. Vining never heard of the bacha bazi practice until returning to the U.S and never received training from the military on how to spot or react to it.

Security concerns with the bacha bazi go beyond community trust. Often the bacha on Vining’s base were sent out by their Afghan commanders to accompany U.S. troops on patrols despite the fact that the teenage boys never received any military or police training.

Bacha bazi is complicated for the U.S. military and for the Afghan civilians. The practice is rooted in some cultural traditions, Vining said. But the vast majority of Afghan civilians denounce the practice as abusive and un-Islamic.

In some regions of Afghanistan, bacha bazi is used as a revenge tactic against rival families or warlords. In other areas, the boys are kept solely for sexual pleasure. The practice varies dramatically from region to region and cannot be categorized so uniformly, Vining said, criticizing the New York Times article.

“What’s the way forward?” Vining asked. “The only military solution has to come from the top down to lower levels. At the lower platoon level, we are powerless to do anything without a complete U.S. policy shift.”

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