A pair of Green Berets physically assaulted an Afghan police official in 2011 after he imprisoned and raped a local boy. But a senior U.S. Army officer in charge of the men wasn’t happy about what he saw as “vigilante” justice.
“They put their team’s life at risk by doing what they did, by risking catastrophic loss of rapport” with local Afghan officials, Col. Steve Johnson, who was an Army Special Forces battalion commander, told The Daily Beast. Johnson said Sgt. First Class Charles Martland and Capt. Dan Quinn, who picked up and threw the police official after discovering he had chained the boy to a bed and pressed him into sexual slavery, had jeopardized the U.S. mission of helping the fledgling Afghan government get on its feet.
Johnson’s comments are some of the strongest to date against the two Special Forces members, who have become central figures in the growing scandal over child sex abuse in Afghanistan and the U.S. military’s alleged acquiescence by encouraging soldiers and Marines not to report rape cases, which are seen as “cultural” issues and not matters for law enforcement. The New York Times reported this week on the military’s sexual assault policy in Afghanistan and on cases of U.S. service members who say they were retaliated against after standing up to Afghan child rapists.
Rape and sexual exploitation are endemic in Afghanistan, and such crimes are rarely prosecuted. But after Martland and Quinn acted against the Afghan police officer, the two faced disciplinary action that effectively ended their Army careers. The men weren’t court-martialed, but they faced administrative punishment that meant neither would ever be promoted again.
The 20 or so soldiers stationed at the remote base in northern Kunduz Province, where the fight took place, “were out there alone with minimal protection and relied on local Afghan police and their relationship with the district governor,” whom Johnson said was “very upset that [the soldiers] did this.”
But a former Marine and U.S. congressmen called Johnson’s conclusions “totally inane and wrong.”
“That exemplifies the problem with the Army,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast.
“To say that you’ve got to be nice to the child rapist because otherwise the other child rapists might not like you is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”
Hunter has been encouraging lawmakers and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to review the cases of Martland and Quinn, who were helping train local police officials and protect civilians in Kunduz. They say they were responding to pleas by villagers, including the boy’s mother, to do something about repeated sexual assaults against children by the police.
“The abuse of children over there is systemic,” Johnson said, acknowledging that the Afghan justice system doesn’t routinely prosecute sex crimes. But the soldiers had been “short-sighted” and “didn’t take the big-picture view,” he said. Quinn and Martland should have let local officials handle a local matter, Johnson said. “They didn’t fix anything by doing what they did. If anything they made it worse.”
When Quinn and Martland confronted the police officer, Abdul Rahman, he laughed and joked about the rape, according to two individuals with knowledge of the altercation and a written witness account obtained by The Daily Beast.
The extent of Rahman’s injuries is in question. The witness account said Rahman had exaggerated how badly he’d been hurt. Johnson said he hadn’t seen Rahman and couldn’t attest to his injuries. Johnson also wasn’t stationed at the base and visited a day after the fight and spoke to soldiers there.
Hunter said the men and their colleagues were highly trained soldiers who didn’t depend on Afghan officials for protection. “These Special Forces guys can take care of themselves,” he said. Hunter questioned whether Johnson was qualified to weigh in on the incident, as he has previously in one newspaper account and in a social media thread debating the case with current and former Special Forces members.
In an interview last month with Washington state’s News Tribune, Johnson said: “You cannot try to impose American values and American norms onto the Afghan culture because they’re completely different. We can report and we can encourage them. We do not have any power or the ability to use our hands to compel them to be what we see as morally better.”
Quinn and Martland were assigned to conduct so-called village stability operations, which Johnson said depend on U.S. forces building strong, trusting relationships with local officials and respecting them as the governing authority.
“Functional or dysfunctional as it may be, there is a legitimate government in Afghanistan,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “We’re operating within their borders. Operating on their behalf. So we have to work within their system. We can help their system improve by working with their system.” But, Johnson added, “If you want to fix the institution, you don’t fix the institution by picking a scab.”
Current and former soldiers rejected that view in a lengthy debate on a private LinkedIn discussion thread about Quinn and Martland’s case. The Daily Beast obtained copies of the comments and confirmed with Johnson that the discussion took place.
“On a human level Charles Martland did right,” said one unidentified commenter. “On a professional level, he did the right thing. De Opresso Liber… is this our creed or just talk?” The Latin phrase, which is the motto of the Special Forces, means “to liberate the oppressed.”
“If Martland loses his [Special Forces] tab and his career… you can have mine too,” said another anonymous commenter, responding to a post from Johnson saying the men had erred. “I encourage you to pick up a phone and talk to these men about their perceived short comings as opposed to putting this stuff on blast and social media to see,” said the commenter. “Martland cant [sic] respond to this and I’m positive you are aware of that, just as I’m positive he is aware of the overwhelming support from his brothers.”
Martland and Quinn would have had little reason to think Afghan officials would seriously respond to their complaints about sexual abuse. The Afghan legal system doesn’t handle child sex abuse like the United States does, a fact driven home to U.S. forces serving abroad.
Marines preparing to deploy are given a detailed training session about the Marine Corps’ own rules against sexual assault. But they are offered practically no guidance on what to do if they witness rape and other sexual abuses by “local nationals” in other countries, including Afghanistan.
The Marines are told that laws and norms about sexual relations vary from country to country and that in Afghanistan in particular, sexual assault is a “cultural” issue and not a purely legal one.
Rahman’s case didn’t go unnoticed by local authorities.
A linguist working for the U.S. military who spoke with colleagues at the base shortly after the altercation said the Afghan provincial police chief—Rahman’s boss—was furious when he learned Rahman had been abusing the boy. “He strongly condemned Mr. Abdul Rahman’s action and suggested that ‘he should be dismissed, arrested and put away for life,’” the linguist said in a written account provided to U.S. officials. The Daily Beast is not naming the linguist out of concern for his personal safety. The contents of the letter haven’t been previously reported.
It’s hard to know whether the police chief would have intervened if Quinn and Martland had reported Rahman. But his angry reaction suggests that he thought Rahman needed to be removed from his position for raping the boy. That lends some support to Johnson’s argument that Martland and Quinn should have alerted higher-ups.
But the linguist also said Afghan officials bore no ill will toward the men, contrary to Johnson’s account that the district governor was upset when they beat up Rahman.
Quinn and his team “were well respected and admired by their Afghans’ [sic] colleagues,” the linguist wrote. “Those at the leadership level in Kunduz province respected and appreciated Captain Quinn and his team’s contributions to the stability and the rule of law in Kunduz province.”