The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 12.10.2015

The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan

Over the past eight years, news reports gradually revealed that Afghan soldiers and police officers allied with US military forces are sexually abusing young boys held against their will—sometimes on US military bases. Last month, Joseph Goldstein (2015) published a front page story in the New York Times under the headline “US Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies,” which opened with the disturbing story of Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley Jr., who was fatally shot along with two other Marines in 2012. Buckley was killed after he raised concerns about the American military’s tolerance of child sexual abuse practiced by Afghan police officers on the base where he was stationed in southern Afghanistan. Buckley’s father told the Times that “my son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”

The Times story provides the now standard boilerplate narrative that adult men having sex with young boys–some as young as twelve years old–exemplify a culture complex known as bacha bazi, or “boy play.” But it also includes vignettes of US soldiers walking into rooms of Afghan men bedded with young boys, a young teenage girl raped by a militia commander while working in the fields, and the story of a former Special Forces Captain, Dan Quinn, who was disciplined after beating an Afghan militia commander who was “keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave” (Goldstein 2015). The article recounts a number of harsh disciplinary actions taken against other US soldiers and Marines who attempted to stop such abusive practices.

The military’s position is that these are local cultural practices, like differences in dress, diet, or musical preferences, and American forces should look the other way and not interfere with these cultural differences. According to a recent report by Shane Harris (2015), Marines are offered little direction if they witness rape or other forms of sexual abuse by local people in other countries. Harris obtained a copy of training materials in which sexual assault is explicitly described as a “cultural” phenomenon in Afghanistan.

Perhaps such revelations were predictable. A decade ago, the counterinsurgency doctrine developed by General David Petraeus and his associates was lauded by supporters as a kinder, gentler way of conducting war. They embraced the idea that the local populations of Iraq and Afghanistan were the “center of gravity,” a fulcrum upon which the fate of the US led occupations rested. The doctrine, most clearly expressed in US Army Field Manual Counterinsurgency: FM 3-24 (US Army 2007), required American forces to work with “host nation” allies (Iraqi tribal leaders in Anbar province, Afghan warlords opposed to the Taliban, etc.) whose beliefs and practices might be very different from those of US troops. Neither FM 3-24 nor any other doctrinal materials provided guidance for dealing with allies who regularly violated basic principles of human rights–or of human dignity for that matter. To make matters worse, the Petraeus doctrine clearly functioned in a top-down manner: soldiers and Marines were expected to set aside their better judgment and experience in order to conform to the demands of the new counterinsurgency.

What makes this topic somewhat tricky is the obvious fact that cultural beliefs and practices vary dramatically from one culture to another. A custom that is considered taboo in one place may be widely accepted or even encouraged elsewhere. Among the most significant contributions made by 20th century anthropologists was the idea of cultural relativism–the notion that each society should be viewed within its particular context, or understood on its own terms. But, as we discuss below, cultural relativism is not the same thing as moral relativism. There has been a surprising lack of inquiry into how American military officials who were obsessed with “cultural awareness” came to accept practices in which unwilling children were taken by Afghan police and militia leaders for sexual gratification.

Rationalizing Child Abuse

While much of this story remains unknown, there is some evidence that the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) played a role in rationalizing pedophilia in Afghanistan, both within military circles and in the popular media’s discourse supporting the establishment of these policies. CounterPunch readers may remember HTS as an experimental and controversial counterinsurgency program that embedded social scientists with combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. During its eight years of existence, the program cost tax payers more than $720 million, making it the most expensive social science project in history. It was fraught with ethical problems and was even condemned in 2007 by the American Anthropological Association. Earlier this year, one of us discovered that the Army quietly shelved the program in 2014 following accusations of fraud, mismanagement, and waste (González 2015).

An early public acknowledgment of the abusive practices of the US’s Afghan allies–and of American military anthropologists encouraging military acceptance of Afghan men having sex with boys–occurred on October 10, 2007 on a radio broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show. In an interview, HTS’s Senior Social Science Advisor Montgomery McFate provided an account of how Human Terrain Teams had helped a US battalion accept these “cultural differences.” McFate (who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University) said that HTS had raised intercultural awareness and acceptance of something she referred to as the NAMBLA-like sounding “Man-Boy Love Thursday.” She recounted this as a “humorous” story illustrating the role of Human Terrain Teams in establishing military interactions with local populations:

“I’m just laughing, because anthropologists are great believers in reflectivity and in understanding your own biases, and sometimes it can be somewhat challenging and humorous to try to teach those perspectives to the military. And I’ll just give one example from Afghanistan, which is that on the Forward Operating Base it was a common practice on Thursday afternoons for some of the older men to go off with some of the younger boys for a little hanky-panky in the bushes. And the Brigade asked the Human Terrain members: ’what’s up with Man-Boy Love Thursday—what is going on?’ And, you know, essentially the Brigade’s view was ‘we need to put a stop to this because it was wrong, it was [in a laughing voice] wrong, it, you know, violates our notion of what’s appropriate.’

And the Human Terrain Team members said, ‘you know, actually that’s part of Afghan culture and there’s not really much you can do about it. If you don’t like it, you can’t stop it. It’s just part of what they are. Don’t try and impose your values on the people you’re working with because you’re not going to change them.’ So [that’s] somewhat a humorous example.” (McFate quoted in “Anthropologists and War” 2007).

McFate’s public persona was that of a bohemian counterculturalist, and her indifferent depiction appears to have influenced rapt US military officials who began to view rampant pedophilia as little more than a cultural oddity. McFate’s glib summary of “Man-Boy Love Thursday” stands as an example of what happens when anthropology is stripped of its ethics for the sake of convenience. By peddling this cheap, tawdry version of social science for military consumption, McFate told her sponsors and the general public that anthropology could serve a useful role in the age of American Empire by simplifying the moral complications of invasion and occupation.

While the New York Times now deserves some credit for focusing critical attention on the current manifestation of “Man-Boy Love Thursdays,” for years, the newspaper played an essential role in portraying HTS in glowing terms. In 2007, the Times ran a sympathetic front-page story in which HTS’s supporters described the program as effective and even “brilliant” (Rohde 2007). The corporate media largely ignored critics of the program. Later that year, the Times followed up its feature story with an op-ed piece lauding HTS, as University of Chicago anthropologist Richard Shweder praised McFate’s program, writing, “Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on ‘love Thursdays’ and do some ‘hanky-panky.’ ‘Stop imposing your values on others,’ was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and I found it heartwarming” (Shweder 2007). Shweder did not fully understand what sort of program of cultural acceptance he found heartwarming, yet his ignorance helped HTS gain the public legitimacy it needed at a crucial moment when anthropologists who were critical of HTS found it impossible to be heard by the Times’s editorial board.

Turning a Blind Eye

Between 2009 and 2011, the US military created a situation in which official reports and documents effectively portrayed the sexual exploitation of children as a natural and acceptable part of Afghan culture.

In 2009 an unclassified Human Terrain Team report on “Pashtun Sexuality” was released to the public. The report, authored by AnnaMaria Cardinalli (who holds a Ph.D. in theology from Notre Dame University), argues that a vast number of Afghan men practice “a culturally-contrived homosexuality,” particularly with boys, which can be partly explained by “a long-standing cultural tradition in which boys are appreciated for physical beauty and apprenticed to older men for their sexual initiation” (Cardinalli 2009: 1,2). Cardinalli’s report suggests that US military personnel need to understand such dynamics as “an essential social force underlying Pashtun culture,” and although it acknowledges that these practices may involve “a great imbalance of power and/or authority to the disadvantage of the boy involved,” it casts doubt on “whether this can rightly be termed abusive when seen through a lens from within the culture” (Cardinalli 2009: 2).

Two years later, in 2011, the Army released a draft training handbook which explicitly advised US personnel to ignore abuses perpetrated by Afghan security officers. The handbook, entitled “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility,” was written by Major Jeffrey Bordin (2011). According to his LinkedIn page, Bordin has a Ph.D. in psychology and holds a “Human Terrain Team Leader” certification from the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (LinkedIn 2015). The draft handbook includes a list of “taboo conversation topics” that American soldiers should avoid, including “any criticism of pedophilia” and “mentioning homosexuality and homosexual conduct.” Like Cardinalli, Bordin downplays child abuse as a cultural quirk. The handbook states: “Bottom line: Troops may experience social-cultural shock and/or discomfort when interacting [with Afghan security forces]. . .Better situational awareness/understanding of Afghan culture will help better prepare [American troops] to more effectively partner and to avoid cultural conflict“ (Bordin quoted in Nissenbaum 2011).

It is remarkable that HTS’s justifications of pederasty provoked so little media attention. By contrast, military narratives of the mistreatment of Afghan women by the Taliban were routinely recycled by a willing press after 2001, and many Americans came to believe that Afghan women needed to be saved from their own men. Curiously, US news organizations have largely ignored the mistreatment of women in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Pakistan–close allies of the United States.

In fact, Human Terrain Team analyses fit the preconceived off-the-shelf Orientalist stereotypes of Islamic societies critically dissected by the late Edward Said. One need look no further than the cover of Said’s Orientalism. It features Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting The Snake Charmer, a romanticized portrayal of a nude boy dancing before tribal elders. The image neatly aligns with long-standing European notions of Oriental exoticism. (It is striking that European and American critics of pederasty often ignore the fact that it was practiced in the West for centuries–most famously in ancient Greece and Rome. Some suggest that the practice may have been introduced to Central Asia during the period of Alexander the Great, long before the arrival of Islam.) The “anthropological” information provided to the military by HTS frequently stressed such exoticism, while ignoring centuries of contact with the West, legacies of European colonialism, and the inequities of power relations that most anthropological analyses would address.

In any event, the reports by Cardinalli and Bordin were entirely consistent with the nonchalant attitude expressed by Montgomery McFate. In 2010, documentary film maker Adam Curtis (2010) blogged about a conversation he had with McFate. When Curtis asked her what she thought anthropology could provide to the military, she answered, “cultural relativism.” To illustrate, she told him about “Man-Boy Love Thursday,” saying:

“The Americans running the base had decided it was wrong. They worried about elder men preying sexually on young boys. They wanted to arrest the Afghan men–but the Human Terrain team persuaded the base commanders that this was an accepted part of Afghan sexual culture. I wonder how long it will be before the anthropologists start telling the military that what they think of as ’corruption’ is in reality a deeply rooted system of tribal patronage in Afghanistan that they should accept.” (Curtis 2010)

Curtis was clearly disturbed by her response.

Cultural Relativism is Not Moral Relativism

The comments of McFate and other former HTS personnel such as Cardinalli and Bordin reveal a profound misunderstanding of anthropology–and of Afghan society. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the ideas expressed by Human Terrain Team members betray a basic misunderstanding about the differences between cultural relativism and moral relativism. The first is a basic anthropological recognition that all cultures have distinct beliefs and behaviors that are seen by members of the cultural as normal and proper. Given the universality of this arrangement anthropologists use cultural relativism to understand cultural differences in their own terms.

But moral relativism is another thing altogether. Moral relativism moves beyond the acknowledgment of cultural difference and refuses to engage with any evaluation of the morality of practices. In this context, pedophilia in contemporary Afghanistan cannot be separated from the American military’s presence there, as HTS’s pseudo-philosophers maintain. By adopting a position of moral relativism, the Human Terrain System pretends to remove itself and the US military from responsibility for these abusive acts occurring on American military bases. One can only wonder why, as they reached this position of moral relativism, HTS’s anthropologically-trained personnel blatantly disregarded the American Anthropological Association’s commitment to the principles of international human rights (AAA 1999; see also Engle 2001). Interestingly, Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani–who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University–recently condemned the sexual abuse of children in his country and vowed to crack down on the abusers (Rosenberg 2015).

There are, of course, cultural differences in expressions of human sexuality. Indeed, the impacts of these cultural differences are significant, and include things like cultural constructions of acceptable sexual expressions, orientations, and consent. Culture’s impact on these elements of sexuality are real and important. But what is vital and missing from such militarized social science analysis is a central acknowledgment of the political context generating these analyses. Like most other things created in a context of military invasion and occupation, the studying and reporting on sexuality occurs through a fog of war obscuring and permeating the operationalization and analysis of that which is studied. In such contexts, what might be normalized descriptions of variations in sexual behavior are transformed by power relations, and efforts to de-exoticize cultural differences in these contexts becomes counterinsurgency intelligence, used not only to understand and accept, but to understand and control. In Afghanistan, these conditions created a cascading escalation of events where HTS personnel provided the rationalization needed to transform American military facilities into areas where US-backed allies raped and brutalized screaming children. These dynamics of rationalization are not unique to this war. As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observed half a century ago in his essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam,” soldiers are often placed in a predicament where “all peripheral rationales fade into the background. It becomes a war of transcendent purpose, and in such a war all efforts on the side of Good are virtuous, and all deaths unfortunate necessity. The ends justify the means” (Sahlins 1966).

HTS’s efforts to absolve American officials of responsibility or agency in these reports of abduction and child rape places US soldiers in an impossible position: they are asked to pretend that US protection and sheltering of those undertaking these acts does not make them morally culpable, even when they bear witness to sexual exploitation, coercion, and abuse. Perhaps there is no clearer indication of the Human Terrain System’s moral bankruptcy than the second-hand effects of its reckless forms of “research,” which have a real human cost. As Afghan children suffer the consequences of official indifference in the face of sexual abuse, American soldiers are haunted by the moral guilt of enforced complacency as they endure yet another lie about the US-led occupation of Afghanistan.


American Anthropological Association. 1999. Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights.

Anthropologists and War. 2007. The Diane Rehm Show, October 10.

Bordin, Jeffrey. 2011. A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility. Unclassified N2KL Red Team Report. Available at

Cardinalli, AnnaMaria. 2009. Pushtun Sexuality. Unclassified Human Terrain Team Report. Available at

Curtis, Adam. 2010. Kabul: City Number One — Part 9. BBC Blogs, May 27.

Engle, Karen. 2001. From Skepticism to Embrace: Human Rights and the American Anthropological Association, 1947-1999. Human Rights Quarterly 23(3).

Goldstein, Joseph. 2015. US Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies. New York Times, September 20.

González, Roberto J. 2015. The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System. CounterPunch (Online edition), June 29.

Harris, Shane. 2015. Marines Trained That Rape in Afghanistan is a ‘Cultural’ Issue. The Daily, September 23. 2015. LTC Jeffrey Bordin PhD.

Nissenbaum, Dion. 2011. Draft Army Handbook Wades into Divisive Afghan Issue. Wall Street Journal, December 11.

Rohde, David. 2007. Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones. New York Times, October 5.

Rosenberg, Matthew. 2015. Ashraf Ghani, Afghan President, Vows to Crack Down on Abuse of Boys. New York Times, September 24.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1966 [2000]. The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam. Culture in Practice: Selected Essays, 229-260. New York: Zone Books.

Schweder, Richard. 2007. A True Culture War. New York Times, October 27.


Tags: Afghanistan