Documentary raises questions about why it has taken 5 years to complete investigation into allegations that officers told soldiers to ignore cases of sex abuse against boys in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Maj. Bill Steuber, like most people in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, knew that local Afghan police were keeping young boys as sex slaves.
The practice, known as bacha bazi, or “boy play,” was an open secret in Sangin, a town of 14,000 in Helmand.
So Steuber sat down to confront deputy police chief Qhattab Khan, hoping he could convince him that the practice — which is as illegal in Afghanistan as it is in Canada — would cost the police the support of the local community.
But what Steuber heard left him shaking his head in disbelief.
During their meeting in November 2012, Steuber said, Khan mocked the idea that his men shouldn’t have sex with the boys. Without the boys, Khan said, using graphic language, his men would be left with few options other than their own grandmothers.
“Trying doing that day in and day out, working with child molesters,” Steuber, who led the police advisory team at Forward Operating Base Jackson, said afterwards. “It wears on you after a while.”
Steuber’s battle with officials to stop Afghan soldiers, police and interpreters from abusing young boys plays out in the new documentary This is What Winning Looks Like, released by British journalist Ben Anderson and Vice.
Anderson’s 90-minute production offers a sobering look at Afghanistan, a decade after Canadian and other western armies arrived, and raises questions about why it has taken the Canadian military more than five years to complete an investigation into allegations that Canadian officers told their subordinates to ignore cases of sex abuse.
The probe continues with no specified end date, a Canadian Forces spokesperson said, long after most Canadian soldiers have left Afghanistan and nearly five years after a board of inquiry was convened on Nov. 21, 2008.
“If you walked just 500 metres from the (Forward Operating Base) in Sangin, you saw evidence of child abuse,” Anderson said in an interview. “The police discussed it openly. The local council members and district governor discussed it openly. All the (International Security Assistance Force) forces who went out on patrol knew about it.
“I could have collected irrefutable evidence of abuse by the most senior police officers present in five days. I have no idea how any investigation into this could take five years.”
A preliminary investigation into the claims concluded in 2010 and since then, the case has been under review by the office of the Canadian army’s deputy commander, currently Maj. Gen. P.F. Wynnyk. Two inquiry board investigators, as well as board president Brig.-Gen. Glenn Nordick, and a team of advisers have interviewed 87 witnesses and collected more than 30,000 pages of documents.
A Department of National Defence spokesperson refused to release the names of witnesses who have spoken to the investigators.
Steuber filed daily reports to his superiors about the abuse, suggesting that it’s unlikely that the most senior western officers didn’t know about sexual abuse taking place on military bases, where until recent years, facilities were mostly shared by Afghan and western personnel.
“The most common reaction among western soldiers is that this (bacha bazi) has been going on for so long, it’s considered normal and there’s nothing we can do,” Anderson said. “But that’s just not true. There are plenty of Afghans who hate this practice.
“And the Afghan police were dependent on us for everything, and we could have said, ‘If we see this happen on your base again, you will not get another drop of gas from us.’ ”