Military officials on Tuesday stepped up their rebuttal to the claim by some U.S. troops that an American policy encouraged them to overlook the rampant sexual abuse of young boys that is common in Afghanistan, particularly by men in the Afghan security forces.
The top four-star commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, issued a rare statement Tuesday morning clarifying that there is no policy requiring American service members to turn a blind eye to the Afghan cultural practice known as "Bacha Bazi."
"I personally have served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and am absolutely confident that no such theater policy has ever existed here, and certainly, no such policy has existed throughout my tenure as commander."
Campbell said that "any suspicions of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to the chain of command, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are. The chain of command will take appropriate action under applicable law, as well as DoD and service regulations."
"If the abuse involves Afghans, a report shall be forwarded to me through operations channels, copied to the Staff Judge Advocate, so that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can be advised and requested to take action.
"I have personally spoken with [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani on this issue and he made it clear to me that the Afghan government will not tolerate the abuse of its children, or any of its people, and will thoroughly investigate all allegations and administer justice appropriately," Campbell said.
Officials were reacting to a New York Times report Sunday that U.S. military commanders looked the other way when Afghan allies tortured and abused young boys, as well as girls — sometimes on American bases — and punished several American service members who spoke out about the problem.
The issue was also raised Tuesday by retired Gen. David Petraeus, who was testifying on Capitol Hill about the U.S. mission in the Middle East.
Petraeus, who was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, said it as "absolutely reprehensible, unacceptable behavior" and there was no policy on the matter when he was there.
"It certainly was not something that was acceptable or even discussed, frankly, when I was commander of the International Security Assistance Force" in Afghanistan, Petraeus said.
"There is no way that that kind of behavior would be seen as helping to serve the Afghan people, and it is absolutely unacceptable," Petraeus said.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pressuring the Pentagon to outline a more explicit policy on the issue.
A Florida congressman demanded the Pentagon make clear its opposition to child sexual abuse and offer some protection for troops who tried to stop the heinous crime while serving in Afghanistan. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called the revelations in the Times report disgraceful and disturbing.
"Protecting child predators is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as a nation," he wrote in a letter Monday to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it's even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it."
Also on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, fired off a letter asking the Pentagon to provide "any and all existing Department of Defense legal guidance regarding the reporting of child abuse." Hunter also recently asked the Defense Department's inspector general to review the Army's handling of a soldier who was punished for his aggressive response to the child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.
DoD is facing a lawsuit from a Marine who said he was wrongfully punished for drawing attention to reports of a high-ranking Afghan man's alleged sexual assault of boys.
Earlier this summer, Hunter requested a review of facts in one of the retaliation cases for reporting sexual assaults, arguing that punishments handed out to at least one Army major ignored larger problems of corruption and abuse among Afghan officials.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a DoD spokesman, said at a Pentagon briefing Monday that the U.S. military finds the widespread reports of pedophilia among Afghan security forces to be "absolutely abhorrent," but added that "it is fundamentally an Afghan law enforcement matter."
"Those are reports that are given over to the Afghan government," Davis said. "We monitor these atrocities closely, and we've repeatedly stood up for those who've suffered exploitation and denial of basic human freedoms.
"We work closely with the Afghan government and with their civil society and other organizations in Afghanistan to put an end to horrific practices like this. And we also incorporate human rights training into our training programs" with the Afghan security forces, Davis said.
Buchanan said that answer is insufficient.
"Fighting in a foreign theater should not require our service members to turn a blind eye towards criminal perversion," he wrote. "Those who wear the uniform of the U.S. military should be commended, not punished, for upholding American values."