JBLM’s sacrifice of blood, sweat and treasure in Afghanistan is deeply knit into South Sound history. The base’s deployment of thousands of service members to that country over the last 15 years resonates with local host communities.
When the uniform is disgraced by a local soldier — à la Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a Stryker Brigade squad leader who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians in 2012 — we feel part of that disgrace.
Conversely, when local soldiers are vindicated for exposing immoral war-zone behavior long neglected by their superiors — à la former JBLM Green Berets who were assigned to mentor some shady Afghan tribal leaders in 2011 — we celebrate their vindication.
That’s what happened last week after the release of a declassified report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. It confirms that the abhorrent practice of child sexual abuse by Afghan security forces occurred for years under the noses of their American military partners, though it says the extent of the problem might never be known.
Two soldiers from JBLM’s 1st Special Forces Group refused to look the other way. While deployed to Afghanistan, they took a bold but regrettably violent stand against a rapist.
Capt. Daniel Quinn and Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland learned that an Afghan leader they were developing into a police commander had kidnapped a boy for several days, chained him to a bed, raped the child and then assaulted the boy’s mother.
When they confronted the man, he admitted what he’d done but was so unrepentant, they lost their cool and beat him up.
“He started laughing when we talked about what a big deal this was,” Quinn told The News Tribune’s military reporter in 2015. At the time of the interview, Quinn had left the Army and Martland was on the verge of being downsized out for assaulting the Afghan leader.
Keeping boys as sex slaves — a practice known as bacha bazi, or “boy play” — might be culturally acceptable among some powerful Afghan men. But for this depravity to continue while U.S. forces funded, trained, assisted and observed their Afghan proteges is unconscionable.
If not for a New York Times investigation in 2015, which found bacha bazi to be widespread, our government’s blind eye might still be winking at these clearcut human rights abuses.
The Department of Defense and State Department “only began efforts to address this issue after it was raised by The New York Times,” said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general who wrote the report. “And even after that story, the sufficiency of policies they’ve put in place and the resources they’ve committed seem questionable.”
It didn’t seem to matter that soldiers reported horror stories up the chain of command. In some cases, blowing the whistle only damaged their careers.
Martland told the Army Human Resources Command that this was the third time during his year-long deployment that he was aware Afghan police commanders had done something reprehensible. The other two incidents involved the rape of a teenage girl and the honor killing of a 12-year-old girl after she kissed a boy.
Quinn and Martland “felt that morally we could no longer stand by and allow our (Afghan local police) to commit atrocities,” Martland wrote to the HR command in January 2015.
Martland was reprimanded and nearly expelled from the Army. But ultimately the two-time Bronze Star recipient (including one for valor) was allowed to stay in uniform, aided by Army comrades and members of Congress who championed his cause.
It’s unfortunate that he and Quinn resorted to violence — Martland acknowledged beating the man was “absolutely wrong — but should we be surprised soldiers would feel compelled to act forcefully, given their superiors’ long failure to do so? Shouldn’t we all be fighting mad that our military is so desperate to defeat the Taliban, it would enlist pedophiles as allies?
U.S. commanders had the means to intervene: a law that requires cutting off financial aid to any foreign military unit linked to gross human rights violations. But they routinely waived it in Afghanistan.
Last weekend’s devastating suicide bombing in Kabul underscores that bringing peace to Afghanistan remains a long, hard road. The U.S. has invested far too much in the country to abandon it entirely.
Elite Special Forces units play a vital role, skilled as they are in adapting to the language, dress and customs of countries where they operate.
But our troops must not be expected to tolerate practices that compromise their values, offend our national conscience and harm children. Never again.