The White House said on Monday that it is "deeply concerned" about the sexual abuse of boys by its Afghan allies, after a New York Times article alleged that U.S. soldiers were instructed to ignore such abuses.
The newspaper interviewed several U.S. soldiers who said that they witnessed the sexual exploitation of children by Afghan military commanders and were told to look the other way by their commanders in order to maintain good ties with Afghan allies.
Also on Monday, the Pentagon denied that the U.S. military has a policy directing forces to ignore the sexual abuse of minors by Afghan officials.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the U.S. was actively fighting the sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan.
"The United States is deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of Afghan boys who may be exploited by members of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces. This form of sexual exploitation violates Afghan law and Afghanistan's international obligations," Earnest said.
"More broadly, protecting human rights, including by countering the exploitation of children, is a high priority for the U.S. government. We monitor such atrocities closely and have continually have stood up for those who have suffered exploitation in denial of basic human freedoms," he said.
"The United States works close with the Afghan government, civil society, and international organizations in Afghanistan to put an end to the exploitation of children; and also incorporate human rights training into our law enforcement programs to heighten awareness in prosecution of such crimes. We continue to urge the Afghan and civil society to protect and support victims and their families, while also strongly encouraging justice and accountability under Afghan law for offenders," he said.
Pressed by reporters, Earnest refused to be drawn on whether U.S. soldiers had been instructed to ignore abuses they witnessed, and referred questions to the Department of Defense.
"Well for the policies that sort of govern the relationship between U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan and their Afghan counterparts, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. But I think you know, the passage that I read earlier, indicates just how seriously we take this issue and how this kind of behavior doesn't just violate Afghan law and Afghanistan's international obligations, but it certainly violates I think pretty much everybody's notion of what acceptable behavior is," he said.
The New York Times report alleges that soldiers were ordered to ignore the abuses even when they occurred at U.S. bases in Afghanistan in order not to prejudice relations with its Afghan allies in their mutual fight against the Taliban.
The article also says that two soldiers who beat an Afghan commander who sexually abused a boy were disciplined by the military and the commander was not punished.
Afghanistan's government has tried to crack down on the practice of "bacha bazi" - literally, "boy play" - which has a long history in northern Afghanistan. Teenage boys dress up as girls and dance for male patrons, and some are turned into sex slaves by wealthy and powerful men, often former warlords.