Reports that U.S. military officers are being disciplined for trying to stop the rape of boys by Afghan defense forces brought condemnation but no pledge of change from the White House and the Pentagon on September 21.
The White House said it was "deeply concerned" about a report in The New York Times which recounted the disciplining of two U.S. military officers who tried to halt the sexual abuse of a young boy.
"This form of sexual exploitation violates Afghan law and Afghanistan's international obligations," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
But the White House and the Pentagon declined to take action that would change the army's hands-off policy, which leaves it to the Afghan government to decide whether to prosecute such abusers. In many cases, it does not.
According to the Times report, former Special Forces Captain Dan Quinn beat up an Afghan militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave, and afterwards was relieved of his command and pulled from Afghanistan.
Quinn said U.S. military commanders have instructed U.S. troops to ignore the abuse of boys by Afghan allies, seeing it as a "cultural" issue and reasoning that "we didn't want to undermine the local government."
The army is also moving to retire Sergeant First Class Charles Martland on November 1 allegedly because he joined Quinn in beating up the Afghan commander.
"The army contends that Martland and others should have looked the other way," said U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, who is trying to intervene with the Pentagon to save Martland's career.
Hunter is asking Defense Secretary Ash Carter to review the case.
While "countering the exploitation of children is a high priority for the U.S. government," Earnest said, the White House believes it is up to the Pentagon to decide how to handle these cases since they involved "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."
The Times quoted a spokesman for the U.S. command in Afghanistan, Colonel Brian Tribus, saying "Generally, allegations of child sexual abuse by Afghan military or police personnel would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law."
That stance was repeated on September 21 by Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
"The practices described in that article, we find absolutely abhorrent," he said. But "while abhorrent, it's fundamentally an Afghan law enforcement matter."
At the same time, Davis denied that the Pentagon has a policy of directing forces to ignore the sexual abuse of minors by Afghan officials.
The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General John Campbell, also denied on September 22 that any such policy was in place.
He said he expects that "any suspicions of sexual abuse will be immediately reported to the chain of command, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are."
"If the abuse involves Afghans, a report shall be forwarded to me through operations channels, copied to the Staff Judge Advocate, so that the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can be advised and requested to take action," Campbell also said.
He added that he had discussed the matter with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Afghanistan's government has tried to crack down on the practice of "bacha bazi" -- literally, "boy play" -- which has a long history in northern Afghanistan. Teenage boys dress up as girls and dance for male patrons, and some are turned into sex slaves by wealthy and powerful men, often former warlords.
The U.S. State Department cited the "bacha bazi" practice in its human trafficking report in July and called the government's efforts to control it "inadequate," noting that many abusers are not arrested and bribe officials to escape punishment.
A number of members of Congress are demanding more from the Pentagon.
"It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it's even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it," said Representative Vern Buchanan. "The only people who should be punished are the ones who created and condoned this immoral and savage code."
With reporting by The New York Times, Reuters, AP, and dpa