Skip to main content

U.S. must draw the line at pedophilia in Afghanistan

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
  • Amitai Etzioni: Reports show widespread, accepted use of boys as sexual slaves
  • Vile Pashtun tradition revived: Boys sold by their families to be used for sex, he says
  • We can't ask cultures to follow Western values, but this crosses the line, Etzioni writes
  • U.S. must not fund or protect regime that allows large-scale sex abuse of children, he says

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- President Obama is reviewing, again, what we are doing in Afghanistan. He should order our diplomats and generals to stop turning a blind eye to the widespread sexual abuse of children.

At the time our troops helped liberate Afghanistan in 2001, pedophilia had been largely curbed by the Taliban. However, since then, some Pashtun men have have been abusing the new freedoms for which our young men and women are dying -- to molest young boys.

This vile practice has been recently documented by an Afghan journalist who returned to his native country for public television's "Frontline."

The program starts with a flat statement: "In an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, an ancient tradition has been secretly revived: Young boys sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, taught to dance and entertain, and used for sex."

A U.N. representative correctly refers to this outrageous conduct as "a form of slavery [...] sexual slavery." The documentary shows that some of the boys are as young as 11, other reports say 9, and when they do not perform or are caught in a rivalry among jealous owners, they are beaten and in some cases murdered.

A State Department report puts it starkly: "Child abuse was endemic throughout the country, based on cultural beliefs about child-rearing, and included general neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, and confined forced labor to pay off family debts."

It continues: "Sexual abuse of children remained pervasive" ... " (and) most child sexual abusers were not arrested."

A U.S. Defense Department report, "Pashtun Sexuality," quotes an Afghan saying: "Women are for children, boys are for pleasure."

It reveals that boys are forcibly removed from their homes to travel with and be used by Afghan security guards. The "Frontline" investigation found some Afghan police officers attending parties with the "dancing boys."

My review of numerous dispatches, cables and reports from Afghanistan found no sign that our diplomats and generals are urging the Afghans to carry out their elementary duty of protecting children; thus, in effect, they are enabling the abuse to continue. This is in sharp contrast to the strong promotion of women's rights to attend school and to leave home unsupervised and of voting rights of the general population.

As a sociologist, I fully realize that we cannot march into other countries, countries that have different cultures and traditions, and expect them to follow our values. I know that we must compromise.

I regret to say that there may be little we can do to curb opium production in Afghanistan, which supplies 90% of the world's opium. I understand that if we tried to eradicate the poppies, we would deprive many Afghan farmers of a major source of income and drive them into the arms of the Taliban.

I am distressed to realize that we must put up with a head of state who presides over a corrupt regime and holds onto power because he benefited from fraudulent elections. However, I understand that we seem unable to find a better partner.

However, every decent human being and nation must observe a line, one that separates the world of accommodations and compromise from non-negotiable core values to which one adheres, whatever the costs and consequences. If selling children to the rich and powerful for sexual slavery does not cross that line, what does?

The president should inform our representatives in Afghanistan that although we shall continue to put up with much that we do not condone, there are limits to our accommodations. We shall neither finance nor protect a regime that refuses to act against large-scale sexual abuse of children.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.