WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon and the White House condemned on Monday reports that Afghan forces who worked with U.S. military personnel sexually assaulted boys, and members of Congress complained about a U.S. soldier being forced out of the military because he intervened in 2011, attacking an Afghan police commander he believed was raping a child.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and others are questioning whether the U.S. military routinely discouraged troops from intervening in such sexual assaults. Hunter said Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland must leave the Army by Nov. 1, because his intervention to stop a child rape triggered a negative mark on his service record.
Hunter is asking Defense Secretary Ash Carter to review the case, saying he has little confidence that the Army leaders will admit they made an error in deciding to punish Martland.
"I hope that when making a decision between supporting an elite warrior like Martland or a child rapist and criminal, the organizations or individuals in a position to make a decision will side with Martland," Hunter said in a letter to Carter earlier this month.
Defense officials would not comment on the specifics of the case.
But Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, says the U.S. has no policy directing forces to overlook human rights abuses. Davis told reporters on Monday that U.S. troops can report such incidents through their chain of command, but added that sexual assault of children, "while abhorrent, it's fundamentally an Afghan law enforcement matter."
The State Department, in its annual human rights report, has consistently said that sexual abuse of children remains pervasive in Afghanistan. And it documents the practice called "bacha bazi" — which means dancing boys. Bacha Bazi involves the sexual abuse of boys, often by powerful or wealthy local businessmen, who sexually abuse young boys trained to dance in female clothes.
In its 2014 report, the State Department said that many child sexual abusers are not arrested, and "there were reports security officials and those connected to the ANP (Afghan National Police) raped children with impunity."
A number of U.S. House and Senate members have asked the Army about Martland's case.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., sent a letter to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for the Pentagon to reverse what he said was its policy of ignoring sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan.
"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," said Buchanan in the letter. "The only people who should be punished are the ones who created and condoned this immoral and savage code."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the U.S. works with the Afghan government to stop the exploitation of children.
"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," Earnest said. "This form of sexual exploitation violates Afghan law and Afghanistan's international obligations. More broadly, protecting human rights, including by countering the exploitation of children, is a high priority for the U.S. government."
According to Hunter and others familiar with the 2011 incident, Martland acted professionally. But Hunter said that a commanding general signed an order of reprimand against Martland saying his conduct during the incident was inexcusable and "demonstrates a flagrant departure from the integrity, professionalism and even-tempered leadership I expect from all soldiers of this command, especially a special forces professional."
According to defense officials, an investigation into the incident resulted in what the Army calls an "adverse action" — essentially a black mark — on Martland's personnel record. Under the Army review process, soldiers can be forced out if their performance doesn't mean the standards for continued service.
The New York Times reported that Martland and Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain, beat up an Afghan militia commander who was working with the Americans but also was discovered to have kept a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.