A few months back, Jamil Hanifi and I coauthored a widely circulated critique of a slanderous piece of war propaganda put out by “journalist” Joel Brinkley, who relied in part on Anna Maria Cardinalli, a “social scientist” with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (see “The ‘Dirty Secrets’ that Purify a Dirty War: A Colonial Tale of Dancing Boys, a Journalist, and the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan“). Thanks to an attentive commentator, we received the news that Cardinalli is even planning a book, telling the Washington Examiner that there is widespread acceptance of homosexuality among Pashtuns–put in that timeless, essentializing statement of someone who either knows nothing about “her subject,” or a transparent attempt to colonize Pashtuns as the source of a “problem.” In fact, the bacha bazi phenomenon largely disappeared under the Taleban, and its resurgence can be directly attributed to the US/NATO invasion and occupation. Readers should consider a more thoughtful and balanced piece, from the BBC, which informs us that:
a) the practice is growing and is “it is the on the increase in almost every region of Afghanistan,” and not just in Pashtun regions;
b) those behind the practice are “wealthy and powerful“–so not so “widespread” that everybody can afford to pay for such boys;
c) and, that the boys are driven into this commodified practice as a result of extreme impoverishment that is directly attributable to the war: “His father died in the fields, when he stepped on a landmine…’We were hungry, I had no choice. Sometimes we go to bed on empty stomachs. When I dance at parties I earn about $2 or some pilau rice’,” which ought to also limit any claim that this is “about homosexuality,” the way HTS and the compliant war media argue.
And who helps to fuel the practice? Is it some generic “Pashtun culture”? Thanks to materials released via Wikileaks, we learn that foreign private security contractors–specifically with DynCorp–paid for young dancing boys to entertain them, and took drugs. Moreover, the scandal was situated in Kunduz, a northern region away from where Cardinalli was based. In fact, it was the Afghan government that tried to put a stop to it, and the U.S. Embassy refused to get involved. In another failure of mainstream American journalism, the Washington Post was aware of these details, and chose to minimize them in a story that appeared back in July, “which made little of the affair, saying it was an incident of ‘questionable management oversight’ in which foreign DynCorp workers ‘hired a teenage boy to perform a tribal dance at a company farewell party'” (source).
If the HTS “researcher” Cardinalli were producing anything other than an instrument of propaganda, proclaiming the timelessness and essential Pashtun-ness of the practice, divorced from history and context, shorn of the role played by the foreign occupation in arming and funding those paying for the practice, and adding its own personnel to those paying for the practice that employs children victimized by war…then she might have an ounce of credibility. Instead, we are treated to ignorance with her facile comments about “Pashtun culture” when, as Jamil Hanifi already explained,
“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.”
But Cardinalli says, “To dismiss the existence of this dynamic out of desire to avoid Western discomfort is to risk failing to comprehend an essential social force underlying Pashtun culture which can potentially effect [sic] the success” of the U.S. effort.” An essential social force, Pashtun culture, and avoiding Western discomfort. Interesting that Cardinalli avoids her Western discomfort by dismissing the dynamic where it is the very occupation that she supports that has enabled and fueled the revival of this practice, in areas far from the “homeland of the Taleban,” on which her dim sights are set. This would not be so problematic, if it were the only time we read crudely decontextualized, ahistorical, Orientalist and even racist blather from the ranks of HTS “researchers.” The only “good news” is that the more they write, the more they indict themselves.