What Wikileaks reveals about Abuse of Power and Bacha Bazi

In Development, Human Rights on December 22, 2010 at 9:51 pm

While browsing around Tumblr, I came across a story that caught me by surprise: a headline that said “Texas Company Helped Pimp Little Boys To Stoned Afghan Cops”. My first reaction was “Surley not!”, but with further research, I came across more and more details that had surfaced through Wikileaks cables about a shocking issue with DynCorp’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Mr. Atmar, Wikileaks reveals, encouraged hushing of DynCorp's atrocities in Afghanistan.

A little background on the situation first. DynCorp, a defense company based in DC, is currently contracted by the US government to train soldiers in Afghanistan. In June 24, 2009’s cable between Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and US assistant ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, a party, PARTIALLY thrown by DynCorp, is discussed. Some extracts from the cable:

On the Kunduz Regional Training Center (RTC) DynCorp event of April 11 (reftel), Atmar reiterated his insistence that the U.S. try to quash any news article on the incident or circulation of a video connected with it. He continued to predict that publicity would “endanger lives.” He disclosed that he has arrested two Afghan police and nine other Afghans as part of an MoI investigation into Afghans who facilitated this crime of “purchasing a service from a child.”

Atmar said he insisted the journalist be told that publication would endanger lives. His request was that the U.S. quash the article and release of the video. Amb Mussomeli responded that going to the journalist would give her the sense that there is a more terrible story to report. Atmar then disclosed the arrest of two Afghan National Police (ANP) and nine other Afghans (including RTC language assistants) as part of an MoI investigation into Afghan “facilitators” of the event. The crime he was pursuing was “purchasing a service from a child,” which in Afghanistan is illegal under both Sharia law and the civil code, and against the ANP Code of Conduct for police officers who might be involved.

Footage from the PBS Frontline documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan reveals the practice of bacha bazi.

Why is Mr. Atmar being so cautious, you might wonder. He makes reference to “purchasing services from a child”. By this, he is referring to the centuries-old practice of bacha-bazi, a cultural tradition for many in Afghanistan.  The name itself means “boy-play”–boys as young as five are taken from their families at a young age and are given to wealthy businessmen and politicians in the district. They are forced to then dress up as women in clothes and makeup, and perform sex acts on their masters and/or their guests. This is, in essence, no different from the prostitution, at a global scale. There are cultural reasons for this- Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle. Since the Taliban controls almost half of Afghanistan, Shariah law is upheld in these regions, which causes women to wear burqas, and thus, men cannot see any part of a woman.

Culturally speaking, this is not considered a crime. Even though both Sharia law and the Afghan civil code ban ‘bacha bazi’, many Pashtun males actually take pride in having young male ‘lovers’. Take a look at this PBS Frontline report, for example.

“I had a boy because every commander had a partner,” says Mestary, a former senior commander who is well connected with major Afghan warlords. “Among the commanders there is competition, and if I didn’t have one, then I could not compete with them.”

Keep in mind, Afghanistan is a country ravaged by drug warlords and political instability, therefore, these people have obscene amounts of power. Yet, such treatment of young boys, who are often too poor to afford an education, is still just as unethical as prostitution, and ‘feminizing’ the boys doesn’t make it acceptable to torture them so.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special representative for Children and Armed Conflict, has been quoted as saying “It’s a disgusting practice. … It’s a form of slavery, taking a child, keeping him. It’s a form of sexual slavery. The only way to stop bacha bazi is if you prosecute the people who commit the crime…”

Response or no response, DynCorp is almost guaranteed to escape from this one without any lawsuits also.

DynCorp, as the main party involved, has not been silent on the issue. According to Inquisition News, which claims Ashley Vanarsdall Burke, DynCorp’s VP of communications, sent them an ‘official response, DynCorp says:

As part of an employee’s going away party, a 17 year old local Afghan dancer who performed at local events such as weddings and other celebrations, was hired to perform a traditional Afghan dance. Recognizing that the situation was culturally insensitive, a site manager stopped the performance. Despite the fact that the performance was stopped, the situation was investigated. What was determined was that the leadership of the team exhibited poor judgment and were subsequently terminated. That is the whole story; no alcohol or drugs were involved, or other illegal behaviors occurred.

Even though Inquisition News doesn’t show any proof of this statement, it’s either this, or no press releases on this subject from DynCorp at all. And honestly, it doesn’t matter if DynCorp decided to save face anyway; their contract in Afghanistan hasn’t changed, and no investigation pertaining to this issue has been ordered. Thus, DynCorp essentially gets off scot-free, again. Oh, and not to mention that one-third of the company’s $3.1 billion in 2009 revenues came from State Department contracts. The police training contract alone is valued at $651 million. With such soaring amounts of money and ridiculous amount of authority in foreign lands, I’m pushed to believe that these individuals somehow become drunk with power along the way.

More importantly, this leads to an even-complex problem of cross-cultural miscues in my mind. Do we as foreign entities support cultural customs that we see as illegal in territories we are engaged in? In my opinion, as citizens and employees of the United States, it should be the subcontractors’ duties to follow US law, which clearly prohibits such activities. But, since they are in a foreign territory, they remain largely anonymous to the people, and since they are given large amounts of power over civilians, the DynCorp employees enjoy too much power and not enough oversight. This, I believe, leads them to think they can do what they want, which of course, they should NOT be doing.

It astonishes me that the first reaction of the Interior Minister would be to stop The Washington Post from running a story on DynCorp’s atrocities rather than bringing it to light for the sake of his own country. Are we really that desperate to seem like we’re making progress in the region? Report after report makes us consider otherwise anyway, and squashing this news repost is only making us less accountable for our actions overseas.

One of the first questions I’d like to ask: How is this story not more publicized than it is currently?! Call it inertia about everything related to Afghanistan (we HAVE been there since 2001), but I don’t see/hear enough about such topics in the nightly or world news. I believe more news networks need to focus on issues like this: it’s exactly this type of glossing over that companies like DynCorp rely on to get away with their activities.

Why would the US government contract a company with a questionable record overseas anyway?

Question number two: If the US government knew about such situations, wouldn’t it make sense to switch contracts immediately to another company? This incident isn’t DynCorp’s first abuse of power– its employees have been involved in the Bosnian sex trade before, yet almost none was prosecuted criminally for their involvements. Companies like DynCorp take unbelievable advantage of legal loopholes, the distance from home and the condition of developing countries to abuse the citizens of the countries they are supposed to be protecting. How have we still not changed the terms of the contract, or held anyone in DynCorp responsible for such atrocities?

Here’s what I feel needs to be done to hold subcontracted companies like DynCorp responsible for their actions:

  • Success-or-Fired approach:  The Pentagon and the Department of Defense need to adopt a success-or-else approach towards subcontractors in war zones. DynCorp’s contract was renewed in April 2010, despite the lack of successful results. Have we ever considered that maybe these companies are deliberately postponing progress to milk more money from the government? It seems to me like that’s what they’re doing. It’s Orwellian, in a way, how we’re working towards achieving an end to an ever-continuing war without much progress. DynCorp’s experience and knowledge of the land and people is not being put to good use if they’re failing at the job they were hired for. So, kick them out, get a more efficient company in place, that can train the soldiers and get out of Afghanistan ASAP.
  • Stronger codes of ethics: Huffington Post’s David Eisenberg talks about the various codes of ethics that DynCorp falls under, and there already are several. The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers says:”Signatory Companies will not benefit from, nor allow their Personnel to engage in or benefit from, sexual exploitation (including, for these purposes, prostitution) and abuse or gender-based violence or crimes, either within the Company or externally, including rape, sexual harassment, or any other form of sexual abuse or violence. Signatory Companies will, and will require their Personnel to, remain vigilant for all instances of sexual or gender-based violence and, where discovered, report such instances to competent authorities.” Also, the International Stability Operations Association states in its code:

    Article 4:

    No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

    Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

    If employees clearly don’t comply with these codes, there needs to be some action taken against them. OR, DynCorp could rectify its own image and establish its OWN code of ethics to be followed by employees everywhere. One that DOESN’T involve them covering up their true engagements.

  • More oversight: Remember Blackwater? Remember Guantanamo? All those incidents resulted because of a lack of oversight within the American bureaucracy as well. DynCorp employees, and all other employees,  need to be under the direct command of high-ranking military officers who can hold them accountable for their jobs. Also, like the remedial measures taken by US officials after Blackwater came out, we can always use more video cameras, audio recordings, and other means of technology to ensure that the people that we hire (whose salaries come from taxpayer money) are doing their jobs as they are supposed to. This way we can try our best to solve misbehavior or abuse of power when we first see it, rather than after several people get involved.

Indeed, now, I support Hameed Karzai’s decision to ban foreign contractors in Afghanistan. I wouldn’t tolerate any foreigners that come into my territory and hurt my people anyway. Despite all the corruption and drug money floating around the country, we need to realize that Afghans are people too, and harming them for sadistic pleasures is STILL illegal. Let’s learn to respect, America.

  1. Gotta love the usual double standard application of Sharia law. And once again Wikileaks is vindicated as a valuable means of keeping the government and its agents accountable.

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