Afghanistan: The Imperial Occupation’s Own Dancing Boys

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.

8 thoughts on “Afghanistan: The Imperial Occupation’s Own Dancing Boys

  1. John Allison

    Bravo Maximillian, Bravo Jamil!
    You are right on track with these “social scientist” hirelings of the Public Information aspect of TRADOC and TRISA.

    Cardinalli’s discomfort with the myth that the military is fostering inside itself and among the HTT’s social scientists – none of which, in my cycle – other than I – had any familiarity with Afghanistan before their exposure to it through the “instructors” who were transmitting the virus to the HTS Cadets – that discomfort was cultivated in the training.

    That sense that Those People are “foreigners”, and do strange things, eat strange foods, and really need “education” and moral ethical training – that is an essential requirement to be able to kill Those Foreigners.

    That sense of an incomprehensible, unbridgable distance between US and Them; that what this is about. They all have noses and five fingers per hand, but they are unbridgably different from us. Levi-Strauss suggested that humans tend to kill off the anthropoid apes around them to better define themselves as different from the Others, the Animals. Somehow, this is related to that human tendency.

    Part of our training was watching the film, The Kite Runner. The strongest line of discussion – completely lacking in ethnological sophistication – that came out of viewing that film was about that moral lacking in the Pashtun soul that leads them into this evil enslavement and sexual abuse of young boys – which was taken to be universal among Pashtun and most other people in Afghanistan … you know, “The Afghanis”. They couldn’t learn that that is the name of their money, not the name of all the peoples of Afghanistan.

    In my post on Leavenworth, I wrote, “Military culture is like a computer virus that is introduced into the basic program of the “nation””.

    How to get that virus out of our operating system?; that is the question.

    John Allison

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much John! It’s an amazing bit of a cover up, to talk about the “dancing boys”, lay it all at the doorstep of “Pashtun culture,” and never mention how U.S. contractors are themselves involved in the practice (and how the war led to its revival to begin with)–not that this should be any shock, to any of us who examined the photos of the mercenaries protecting the U.S. embassy, eating potato chips and drinking vodka shots from each other’s ass cracks. The Afghan guards refused to participate, and were intimidated and beaten. Yes, let’s all look way over there, at “Pashtun culture.”

      1. martin

        it does resemble what happened in Kosovo and probably happens all the time: “It says that after 40,000 K-For troops and hundreds of Unmik personnel were sent to Kosovo in 1999, a “small-scale local market for prostitution was transformed into a large-scale industry based on trafficking run by organised criminal networks”. ”

        not only the war creates a new rules (or lawlessness), but also as in case of Balkan trafficking the first initial high costs are covered by foreign soldiers, humanitarian workers etc in search of “entertainment”. once the network was there, the brothels became cheaper and accessible to local men as well.

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  4. M. Jamil Hanifi

    America is severed from its past. American cultural and social life has no historical weight. This predilection coexists with self-imposed disinterest in conceptualizing and embracing reality. Americans are not interested in reality. To them social and cultural reality at home and abroad is what they imagine. This disposition has doomed Americans to a worldview and political culture that is constructed with novels and other forms of fiction about the Other. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the tradition it spawned about the colonial constructions of the Other continues to provide the ideological and material medium for Americans, especially their elite, for engaging the cultural and social realities of South Asia.

    Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 Kite Runner is merely a spin on Kim and a transparent tableau of well-timed imaginings about Afghanistan by an American entrepreneur with an exotic Afghan name. Hosseini has no literary competence in the major languages of Afghanistan. A culturally equipped critical glance at the two major locations in Hosseini’s book dismantles its ethnographic authority and cultural connection to Afghanistan: 1. The English language construct “Kite Runner” does not occur in Dari/Farsi, Paxtu, or any other language of Afghanistan. Neither does this construct have any meaningful relationship to the kite flying cultural tradition of Afghanistan and, South Asia in general, from where the Afghan tradition is derived. The Dari/Farsi godi paran bazi or kaghaz paran bazi—kite playing—is the Afghan approximation of “kite flying”. Godi paran baz—kite player—is the Dari/Farsi approximation of “kite flyer”. 2. Traditional Kabuli households consist of extended and/or joint families in which women are prominent and actively present. The household in which Hosseini’s father (and presumably in which Khaled Hosseini was born and enculturated) lived does not include female relatives. The only woman in Hossein’s father’s life is the young wife of his Hazara servant whom he rapes causing her to run away and disappear. The abuse of women and their absence from customary locations of power in the fiction of the Kite Runner is a derivative and justification of the American occupation of Afghanistan aimed at the “liberation” of Afghan women. The Kite Runner was a well timed fiction that has become the bible from which the distorted cultural realities of Afghanistan continue to be transmitted to the American political and civil society. For understandable reasons the “Kite Runner” has become the “Kim” of contemporary America.

    Sleep-walking insolent America is yet to be inoculated against the deadly virus of complacency, ignorance, and the disinclination to conceptualize and embrace reality. The HTS and people like Anna Maria Cardinalli are merely symptoms of this ideological cancer. We could easily isolate, personalize, expose and discredit these sporadic symptoms as vicious misrepresentations of their “Afghani” Other. But this kind of patchwork does not disinfest the larger structure that produces and houses the mother virus. We need something tantamount to a divine providence to fix or replace this diseased structure. We truly need “to get that virus out of (the American) operating system”. If we don’t, the “nation” is certainly headed to unspeakable disasters. By self-selection America is afloat in a global Bermuda Triangle.

  5. naoma

    I saw a story about this practice on my Education Channel a while back.
    Apparently there is no “homosexuality” over there.
    AHEM. Boys are for SEX; women are for having babies.

    And we participated in this practice!

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