The ‘Dirty Secrets’ that Purify a Dirty War: A Colonial Tale of Dancing Boys, a Journalist, and the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan

By M. Jamil Hanifi & Maximilian C. Forte

The Telling of a Tale

There is no “scoop” in Joel Brinkley’s article, “Afghanistan’s dirty little secret” (29 August 2010, San Francisco Chronicle)—just an ugly sensationalist title on a story already abundantly covered by PBS Frontline months ago (see: “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”). What is more distinctive about Brinkley’s piece is the level of demonizing to sell war, and the involvement of AnnaMaria Cardinalli, an employee with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System—a basic fact which Brinkley smudges out of view for the entire article, where HTS is not mentioned even once. Thanks to Brinkley’s clumsy use of an airbrush, Cardinalli is transformed into a “military investigator,” someone expressly hired by the Defense Department to investigate the “dancing boys” controversy: “the Defense Department hired Cardinalli, a social scientist, to examine this mystery.” The article is about Afghan men who gawk at and take little boys for sex. It mixes a fair amount of pedophilia, homophobia, and Islamophobia, all in a short space. The article even manages three paragraphs casting aspersions on Afghan President Hamid Karzai as someone whose family is likely to have indulged in sex with little boys—not the first time that Americans have thrown mud at their own, presumably trusted, ally.

Brinkley refers to a shocking line in a U.S. State Department report (from 2009)—he focuses on this: “A recent State Department report called ‘dancing boys’ a ‘widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape’.” The actual paragraph—and it is one alone—from the 2009 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Afghanistan (hardly a credible source, given that it is from one of the lead combatants in a war that is the cause of the greatest number of human rights violations), still manages to be a little more nuanced than Brinkley:

“Sexual abuse of children remained pervasive. NGOs noted that most child victims were abused by extended family members. A UNHCR report noted tribal leaders also abused boys. During the year the MOI recorded 17 cases of child rape; the unreported number was believed to be much higher. In January and February, the ANP arrested men in three separate cases of the rape of boys in Jowzjan province. According to the AIHRC, most child sexual abusers were not arrested. Numerous reports alleged that harems of young boys were cloistered for ‘bacha baazi’ (boy-play) for sexual and social entertainment; although credible statistics were difficult to acquire, as the subject was a source of shame and ‘dancing boys’ was a widespread culturally sanctioned form of male rape.”

Widespread, but statistics are difficult to acquire. Shameful, yet culturally sanctioned.

The paradoxes are missed by readers without an eye for subtlety. What is intended is that “we” imagine: that we imagine how much worse it must be, how many more untold cruelties and savage atrocities must be occurring…in lurid little Afghanistan, fatherland of the boy fuckers. It is a warmed over tale of colonial chronicles of “the cannibals”:

“They are a very bellicose people, naked and idolatrous, and they eat human flesh, and beneath these vices one must believe that they have many others”

(Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. 1959. Historia General y Natural de las Indias, II. Juan Perez de Tudela Bueso, ed. Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, Colección Rivadeneira. Madrid: Real Academia Española. P. 387).

“There’s no issue more horrifying and more deserving of our attention than this,” Cardinalli tells Brinkley. “I’m continually haunted by what I saw.” An American employed by the Pentagon tells an American reporter that what is continually haunting are images of dancing boys—because all the warfare is much more palatable, or so “normal” for an American that it’s easy to miss the sounds of gunfire and explosions. But then that’s the point: promoting a war of occupation because of the “horror” of an unstated number of dancing boys.

The State Department’s lack of “credible statistics,” is transformed by Brinkley into an atrocity on a massive scale, with known numbers, numbers that even permit cross national comparison:

“tens of thousands of proud pedophiles, certainly more per capita than any other place on Earth….And how did Afghanistan become the pedophilia capital of Asia?”

Your source? Who cares, this is American war “journalism.” Brinkley can count as his own source, and still win over the public…to war.

As for Cardinalli’s background, it is in theology and Latino studies, focusing on Spanish flamenco and New Mexico. She “identifies herself first as a musician.” No background, in other words, in Islam, Afghanistan, Central Asia, gender and sexuality studies. Her only building blocks for an approach to this issue is that she is an American, employed with the Human Terrain System, in a war zone. Back home she would be on tour, in restaurants, with El Duo Dende. In Afghanistan, thanks to Brinkley, she becomes his sole source, a trusted authority on Afghan culture. How easy it is for the delegates of the motherland to make their reputations in the colonies, on the backs of inferior natives.

AnnaMaria Cardinalli, putting her skills to use for the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System, a counterinsurgency program that now fancies itself as a savior of abused children.

Who are these ‘Dancing Boys’?

Bacha bazi (n.v., boy playing) is a Farsi/Dari construct in Afghanistan. There is no counterpart for this construct in Paxtu and Paxtun dominated parts of the country. Likewise, Bacha baz (n.v., boy player) is also a Farsi/Dari construct which does not have a counterpart construct in Paxtu.

The phenomenon is openly marked in the popular culture of non-Paxtun areas in Afghanistan (especially in Kabul [mostly non-Paxtun], northern Afghanistan with a concentration in large urban areas like Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Qunduz, Maimana. The Paxtun dominated city of Qandahar is the exception to this. However, the practice does occur, probably with less proportional frequency, among Paxtuns.

The power relational aspect of this phenomenon should be emphasized. The stigma of having been a “boy” is a lifelong burden to a man. It is a lifelong disadvantage. No one will give a woman in marriage to a person who has once been played with as a “boy.” Thus, Bacha bazi is rarely flaunted; it is kept on a clandestine level.

Media Misrepresentation

The issue here is Joel Brinkley’s violent distortion and misrepresentation of the culture and society of the noble people of Afghanistan. It is about the contamination of the minds of the good and innocent people of the United States with poisonous anecdotal and unfounded claims about a vast and diverse Muslim society in which the American military is spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars every day in the pursuit of a culture cleansing project driven by distorted and stereotypical images of Afghan men, women, and children produced by people like Brinkley.

The professional, educational thing to do would be to have Stanford University and the San Francisco Chronicle jointly organize a public forum in which Brinkely would be required to produce all the evidence on which he based his published writings about social life in Afghanistan and have his descriptions and conclusions confronted with properly produced ethnographic texts and the cultural realities of Afghanistan.

An Anthropologist Confronts a Journalist

Mr. Brinkley:

Your article titled “Afghanistan’s dirty little secret” published in the August 29th, 2010 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle (and circulated by you in numerous other media venues) is a stark and sorry reflection of the poverty of institutional academic and professional journalistic standards in the American media constantly spewing lies, misinformation and distortions about Other cultures and societies. This unfortunate (and dangerous) state of affairs is responsible for the ongoing global insecurity, war, bloodshed, and the massive willful destruction inflicted by the United Sates on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given what is known about your academic and “journalistic” background and that of your partner in ignorance, AnnaMaria Cardinalli (of the HTS), I am not surprised about your flawed and totally baseless commentary and categorical conclusions about complex cultural and social conditions in Afghanistan. Bacha Bazi is indeed practiced in some social locations in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, it is fundamentally a relation of power, an outcome of class and age inequality. The current pattern of this inequality in Afghanistan is exacerbated by heightened poverty and disproportionately high numbers of orphans during the recent decades caused by the destruction of the Afghan state apparatus for which America is chiefly responsible. The regular reports in the United States from former male victims of rape in the Catholic Church are forms of resistance to this structure of inequality. I remember an example from Afghanistan. During 1950-51 I lived in Qandahar for a few months. I vividly remember information being circulated in public about an incident in which a young boy, as a victim of an attempted rape, had severed with a knife the penis of the rapist. The boy became a local hero and I later learned that the rapist had vanished into the status of a despised malang.

Name the sociologists and anthropologists who “say the problem results from perverse interpretations of Islamic law”? Stop spreading untruths about the people of Afghanistan. Stop essentializing all Afghans with anecdotal absurdities from fictive individuals—“Mohammed Daud” and “Enyatullah”—and the confused AnnaMaria Cardinalli who knows virtually nothing about Islam and the ethnography and ethnology of Afghanistan.  Yes, sex before marriage is not allowed in Afghan local culture. But how and why should this be the cause of sexual abuse of boys by men? Women’s faces, chests, arms, and legs are visible (and accessible) in virtually all locations of public culture in the United States. Yet Catholic priests and other American men sexually abuse young boys at probably the same rate as in Afghanistan? Why? Remember all human populations produce about two percent homosexuals. In Islam and Afghan local culture menstruating women incur a state of ritual pollution. Intercourse with such women is considered ritually polluting. This is a cultural construct. You have no business questioning the integrity of this construct. And remember refraining from sexual intercourse with menstruating women is also (for a variety of reasons) installed, in a variety of ways and degrees of emphasis, in Euro-American and other cultures. Take a look at comparative global ethnography.

It is likely that in writing this narrative of distortions, you have been inspired by Frontline’s “Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”. Anyone with basic competence in Afghan local culture can see and hear that the DBA story is scripted and staged and that it lacks local social and cultural validity and integrity.

The abuse of young boys in Afghanistan is, in principle and extent, not different from the sexual abuse of young boys in the Catholic Church and other locations of Euro-American and other cultures. It is not unique to Afghanistan. Your understanding and analysis of perceptions of Afghan women by Afghan men is truly defective. You should learn to frame such complexities in a properly informed local and comparative perspective. As a bonus, such a perspective would also help you acquire a systematic and culturally grounded understanding of the high rate of incest and sexual abuse of young boys and girls in the United States.

You have poisoned the minds of innocent Americans and violently distorted a complex socio-cultural phenomenon in Afghanistan. Stanford University is a reputable institution of higher learning. You have stained that distinguished reputation. And you are not “a professor of journalism at Stanford University.” You are a “professional in residence” at Stanford. Stop manipulating the prestige of academic ranks and institutions in constructing and vending Zionist anti-Islamic propaganda and lies about the good and NORMAL people of Afghanistan. Shame on you and your collaborators for producing such fraudulent and baseless venom. You owe your readers a profound public apology.

M. Jamil Hanifi


Joel Brinkley []

Sent: Sunday, September 05, 2010 1:54 PM

To: M. Jamil Hanifi

Subject: Re: Lies about Afghanistan from Joel Brinkley

Mr. Hanifi,

First, let me inform you that I have not “circulated” my column to “numerous other media venues.” My weekly column is syndicated, which means that a syndication services sells it to whichever newspapers want to buy it. Second, I did a great deal more research for that article than is immediately evident from reading it, including speaking to several Afghans. I am confident of its accuracy. In fact, since its publication, I have heard from several Afghans who say the problem is worse than I have portrayed it.

Joel Brinkley


Mr. Brinkley:

Let us expose to public view your “great deal” of research about this subject. Where, when, and how was this research produced? Identify the “several Afghans who say the problem is worse.” I am prepared to offer a frontal engagement to your baseless claims (and their sources including the “several Afghans”) in a public forum at Stanford University. You arrange for this. I will come there at my own expense. Snippets of gossip and anecdotal information should never be allowed to demonize a vast and diverse socio-cultural system across the board. Essentializing the 30 million people of Afghanistan with a few street corner telltales is the height of moral, political, journalistic, and academic irresponsibility.

Remember Where the Taleban Stood on the Sexual Abuse of Boys?

Ironically, as some online comments note, the tale of the dancing boys would seem to vindicate the Taleban and call for the return of their harsh and systematic justice that severely punished such behaviour. Remember what Ahmed Rashid discovered about the origins of the hero stories surrounding Mullah Omar’s rise to popularity:

“A few months later two commanders confronted each other in Kandahar, in a dispute over a young boy whom both men wanted to sodomise. In the fight that followed civilians were killed. Omar’s group freed the boy and public appeals started coming in for the Taliban to help out in other local disputes. Omar had emerged as a Robin Hood figure, helping the poor against the rapacious commanders. His prestige grew because he asked for no reward or credit from those he helped, only demanding that they follow him to set up a just Islamic system.”

Nonetheless, this does not prevent the subtext from being that which it became through circulation of stories such as that of the dancing boys, or Aisha—that the U.S. must remain in Afghanistan to prevent such abuses from happening when, if anything, such abuses have had a resurgence since the U.S. invaded. More than just one party is guilty of pimping these little boys.