Despite our differing national interests, there are several things that remain consistent among all young soldiers around the world. Whether in the American, Afghan, Iraqi, British, Iranian, Japanese, or French Army, at the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of hormonal twenty year-olds running around the world tasked with doing our respective nation’s dirty work. Beyond our calling as soldiers, we are all human; we cope with our dangerous lifestyles in similar manners. Soldiers around the world will always overindulge in beer and liquor. They will each have terabytes of pornography tucked away for lonely nights in warzones. And whenever a soldier enters a new country, after learning the traditional greetings, the first foreign phases they memorize are usually curse words and insults. Ah, it’s great to surround myself with perpetual youth.
I suppose it’s no surprise then that the first Pashtu words that my men all learned were “kuni” and “bachibas”, both derogatory Pashtu words for “gay”. At first, it sounds incredibly unprofessional and almost heartbreaking to know that the men charged with winning these hearts and minds are playing around foolishly with such inappropriate words in a Muslim country. But Afghan boys are no different than American boys. Comical references to homosexuality have almost become a source of bonding for my men and their ANA counterparts. In the dull moments in between taskings, soldiers will just randomly point to each other and yell “Bachibas! Kuni!” and continue with a series of inappropriate hip thrusts as the ANA all laugh hysterically.
But recently, homosexuality in the ANA ranks has become quite a topic of discussion for the soldiers of Attack Company. It started when an Afghan SGT started gawking repeatedly at one of the “prettier” soldiers in first platoon. His advances soon turned physical and creepy, provoking a near confrontation. A few weeks later, two male ANA soldiers were caught making out at the platoon house several kilometers southwest of our COP. Weird right? And yes, even I was recently solicited by a clearly gay ANA soldier when I visited the ANA eastern outpost last week. It was actually one of the most bizarre things I had ever experienced. The soldier knew I spoke Urdu. Word has apparently gotten around the ANA battalion of my Indian decent, so he automatically started flirting with me in a foreign tongue. He desperately tried to appear feminine and attractive in his BDU blouse and flip-flops, though failing miserably. Unfortunately for him, sporadic facial hair and body odor aren’t really my thing…nor are men for that matter.
I’m secure in my heterosexuality, so I wasn’t as offended by the ANA soldier’s proposition as I am sure other soldiers would have been. But it forced me to consider a lot of factors regarding homosexuality in the Armed Forces and how much of a hindrance such lifestyles can have in armies around the world.
First, I thought of the nature of homosexuality in both the United States and Afghanistan. In the U.S., most people hold the opinion that homosexuality is one of two things: a genetic trait or a deliberate lifestyle choice a person makes. But in Afghanistan, there seems to be a third option; that homosexuality is a temporary fix for coping with strict Islamic social standards. Most Muslim cultures are extremely sexually repressive; but that does not stop its teenage males’ hormones from flaring. In fact, I believe it incites them. I knew dozens of women in Cairo who were repeatedly groped and grabbed on the streets of Midan Tahrir, even when wearing a Hijab. I saw the same in Tunisia and the three Gulf countries I’ve visited. But in a place like Zhari where an ANA soldier can’t really go anywhere, not even a street corner, to consistently interact with women…sometimes a temporary fix is the best thing.
Secondly, I considered the ramifications that homosexuality could have on the ANA. They must deal with rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’d even wonder if most ANA soldiers knew the difference between the two. ANA Soldiers must surely become distrustful of each other if it appears that a peer is getting special treatment because he performs certain “favors” for his superiors. These are all issues that the U.S. Army had to consider before allowing women into the force. But the difference is that the American military not only had the ability to investigate and prosecute those engaging in improper conduct, but we have a professional ethos and standard of integrity which keeps such issues from arising in the first place. I by no means am implying our system is perfect. Sexual harassment and assault cases continue to occur in our ranks…but the trend could be far worse than it is.
Lastly, I wondered where we’d start if we ever needed to solve a problem regarding homosexual abuse in the Afghan Army. Could the ANA call homosexual conduct unbecoming of an officer or soldier, and thus grounds for legal action? How would they enforce such rules in a corrupt system? How would they ensure due process in crimes where a crime scene is so easily tainted by war? There are just so many scenarios that could fall through the cracks of legal filters, it begs the question whether such an effort to produce a platonic and healthy professional environment for the ANA is even worth it.
Whether in the United States, Germany, Korea, or at the Airfield in Kandahar, soldiers constantly get bombarded with public-service announcements of Generals and Sergeants-Major talking about sexual harassment in the work place, “Take care of your fellow soldiers, sailors, and airmen…this behavior is unacceptable… Sexual harassment is a crime and you can be prosecuted….Hooah…”
I find it ironic that the same military leaders who keep appearing in these commercials are often those who are charged with building the ANA into a professional organization, and yet they do not seem aware of the widespread sexual harassment problems the institution faces. Of course, it’s natural for us to concern ourselves more with training the Afghan soldiers and fighting corruption in the officer ranks. These seem like more important issues that need to be tackled first. But we must remember… soldiers around the world are all alike, and the unhealthy exploitation of vulnerable bodies in remote and confined spaces is bound to occur. No matter how much training we give the ANA, no matter how much corruption we root out, if the ANA soldiers feel vulnerable or insecure around their leadership, all of our investment in this military will go to waste.
I definitely see sexual abuse becoming a problem for the ANA down the road, far after we’ve left this country. We can train and inspire individual soldiers for the rest of our time in Afghanistan, but unless we commit to developing a professional culture in this organization, I fear that our blood and treasure will yield little benefit for our national security. I’m fascinated to see if and when this issue arises in any form of public discourse on our ability to build an Army ready to secure Afghanistan.