A senior Pentagon official admitted to the Washington Free Beacon late Monday that Afghan forces allied with U.S. troops in the war-torn country have been caught sexually abusing children.
The admission comes on the heels of reports that the Obama administration has been punishing U.S. soldiers who blew the whistle on this sexual abuse.
U.S. lawmakers early Monday expressed shock and outrage over the report and called on Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, to immediately address a policy of ordering U.S. troops to ignore such sexual abuse.
When asked about the practice, a Pentagon official admitted that such abuse was taking place but denied that there is an official policy that instructs U.S. troops to ignore it.
"This is an abhorrent practice, and we are deeply concerned about it," the official told the Free Beacon. "This form of sexual exploitation of children is a violation of Afghanistan’s laws and international obligations.
"There is no policy in place that directs any U.S. military or government personnel overseas to ignore human rights abuses," the official said. "On the contrary, we monitor such atrocities closely and have continually stood up for those who have suffered exploitation and denial of basic human freedoms."
The official did not explicitly deny that U.S. troops who reported abuses had been punished.
In the current environment, such abuses by Afghans working with the United States fall under governance of country’s domestic laws, according to the official.
"Generally, child sexual abuse is a matter of domestic law, unless the activity constitutes a gross violation of human rights (GVHR) or a violation of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)," the official said.
If Afghans engage in sexual abuse that is witnessed by U.S. personnel, reports are forwarded "up the chain of command" for further review, the official explained.
"That said, consistent with clear [Department of Defense] policy on the issue of sexual assault, trafficking in persons, and similar matters, Commander U.S. Forces-Afghanistan expects all personnel to treat others with respect and dignity and expects that any suspicions of sexual abuse are immediately reported up the chain of command," the Pentagon said.
"Any sexual abuse, no matter who the alleged perpetrator and no matter who the victim, is completely unacceptable and reprehensible," the official added.
The United States has worked to train Afghan forces to respect "human rights" and not to engage in the sexual abuse of children, the official further said.
"Both our annual Trafficking in Persons report and our Human Rights Report on Afghanistan have noted this form of child sexual abuse, and training of Afghan law enforcement has focused on human rights in order to improve reporting and accountability," the official said. "We continue to urge the Afghan government to strengthen enforcement of its laws."
The White House on Monday declined to address reports first issued by the New York Times that U.S. troops were being punished for exposing the sexual abuse of children.
"For the rules of engagement and the kind of structure that’s in place to guide the relationship between the United States and Afghan members of the military, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for that," the White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
In several instances, U.S. soldiers could hear child rape occurring, but they were "told to ignore these events because it’s part of Afghanistan’s ‘culture,’" according to the Washington Examiner.
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R., Fla.) expressed shock and dismay at the reports in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Dempsey.
"I urge you to immediately reverse the Pentagon’s shameful policy of punishing soldiers who try to stop the sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan," Buchanan wrote in a letter to Dempsey that describes "a chilling policy that told American soldiers to look the other way when Afghan allies sexually abused young boys, sometimes on military bases."
"American soldiers serving our nation in the Army and Marines in Afghanistan have been told to stand down when encountering child sexual abuse perpetrated by local allies," Buchanan writes. "Protecting child predators is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as a nation. I call on you to end this shameful policy immediately."