The Defense Department has responded to mounting allegations that U.S. soldiers were told to ignore Afghan troops abusing children by insisting there was "no such policy" at the time.
But lawmakers and those who served in Afghanistan suggest that the Pentagon is leaning on semantics -- and that while there may have been no official policy telling troops to turn a blind eye, they certainly didn't encourage American soldiers to intervene either. Plus, they say cases where those who did intervene were punished sent a clear message to fellow soldiers.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in Afghanistan, called the department's response to the controversy “pure lawyer-speak.”
“Of course there is no policy, like they say, but they were allowing this to happen," he told Fox News' "The Kelly File."
Other accounts appeared to back up that claim.
“There was definitely an atmosphere of DADT [don’t ask don’t tell] on Afghan sexual abuse of children. The whole situation was so messed up that it was impossible to operate our way of life and still deal with them [Afghans],” said Michael Yon, a former Green Beret who was embedded as a war correspondent in Iraq and also reported from Afghanistan.
“Stories about Afghan commanders raping children were credible and not uncommon,” Yon told FoxNews.com. Yon's war reporting previously has appeared on FoxNews.com.
Though such allegations have been around for years, the Pentagon came under renewed pressure to address its policy toward handling child abuse claims following graphic press reports earlier this week.
Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement Tuesday that he is "absolutely confident that no such theater policy has ever existed here, and certainly, no such policy has existed throughout my tenure as commander."
He said he expects "any suspicions of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to the chain of command," and he has personally spoken with President Ashraf Ghani on the issue. Ghani later vowed his government would crack down on child abuse. Further, former Gen. David Petraeus told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday that "it is not a policy now" -- or when he was in command -- to look the other way.
Still, a comment supplied to The New York Times on this issue two days before by the spokesman for the U.S. command in Afghanistan said: “Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law” and “there would be no express requirement that U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan report it.”
The Pentagon's fresh assurances aren't stopping congressional lawmakers from pressing the U.S. military for answers on exactly what American troops were told to do in these situations.
And some, including Hunter and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., are jumping to the defense of one soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, whom the Army is trying to discharge -- after he got in trouble for shoving an accused rapist in 2011 in Afghanistan.
Rick Scavetta, an Iraq and Afghanistan Army veteran, said he saw recent reporting on the Martland case, and “it brought it all right back home for me.” He said he recalls stumbling into an Afghan tent before his interpreter grabbed his arm, warning him about the Bacha Bazi or "boy play" inside.
“I was mortified,” he told FoxNews.com. “In the years since, in talking with soldiers, I realize it’s always been a widely known thing. This is all coming out now, but it’s always been known."
Critics have suggested that soldiers were effectively told to tolerate Afghan leaders abusing young boys out of consideration for Afghan "culture," and for their status as U.S. allies.
Martland and Capt. Daniel Quinn were disciplined in 2011 after they shoved an Afghan commander who allegedly raped a local boy and beat his mother when she complained. Quinn told Fox News that the commander in question admitted to chaining the young boy to a bed and raping him repeatedly, and “laughed in our face” when they tried to convey the seriousness of the charges. He said the men picked the commander up and threw him to the ground. Both were reprimanded and taken out of Afghanistan.
While Quinn eventually left the military, Martland wants to continue his career but is being squeezed out despite an appeal. The Army will not talk specifically about his case, citing privacy considerations.
When asked about the Army’s policy on reporting sexual abuse, Quinn told Fox News' "The Kelly File" they were told by the chain of command to go through the local Afghan government. “In our case, we went through the local government three times and it was met with indifference,” Quinn said.
Hunter, R-Calif., has written to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, seeking “any and all existing Department of Defense legal guidance regarding the reporting of child abuse.”
Meanwhile, Buchanan appealed to Gen. Martin Dempsey, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It’s bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior," he wrote, "but it’s even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it.”
A report by The New York Times on Sept. 20 describes a situation in which three Marines were killed by a young Afghan who critics believe may have been abused by a powerful commander who had already been arrested once by Afghan authorities at the Marines’ urging. But he popped up at another U.S. base and surrounded himself with a “large entourage” of “tea boys.”
One of the Marines who had him arrested in 2010 attempted to warn Marine officers at the new base via email. About two weeks later, one of the boys in the entourage grabbed a rifle and killed three U.S. Marines. Still, the officer who had sent the email warning – Maj. Jason Brezler – is now facing an involuntary discharge. The Marines say the emails he sent could have contained classified information.
“We use words like integrity and honor and we mean it. These guys were living by that code,” said Scavetta. “Standing up for somebody they don’t even know … that is upholding those values. How can you turn a blind eye to that?”