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The taboo topic our mission in Afghanistan ignores

We see footage of a boy dancing in front of a crowd of men. The boy is dressed as a girl, in a purple skirt and a pink top. As he dances, some of the men in the audience throw money at him. The voice-over says, "The boys are street orphans or boys bought from poor parents in the countryside. It's common knowledge in this world that after the dancing, these boys are often sold to the highest bidder or shared among powerful men for sex."

What "this world" means is Afghanistan. The program is Frontline: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (PBS, 9 p.m.) and it really makes you wonder about the country, and the post-Taliban Afghanistan we have sent our soldiers to help create and to protect.

The program is about the horrific tradition called bacha bazi, which means "boy play." Boys, some as young as 11, often orphans, are bought by former warlords and powerful businessmen, then trained to sing and dance for the entertainment of male audiences. They then become sex toys for anyone who can afford to pay their masters. The practice was banned when the Taliban were in power. And it is currently illegal under Afghan law. But the program asserts that it has re-emerged and it is widespread in Afghanistan. It's a powerful program, made without faltering into the lurid. It compels us to judge good and evil and, frankly, the overriding emotion it evokes is disgust.

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It isn't easy for an outsider to gain access to the world of bacha bazi and the reporting is done by Afghan-born journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who also made Behind Taliban Lines for Frontline. Here his cover is his claim to be making a documentary about similar practices in Europe, and this impresses a man named Dastager, a former mujahed and now a wealthy businessman. Dastager takes Quraishi and viewers into his world, boasting often about boys who are essentially his sex slaves. Asked, "How many boys have you had?" the man smirks and replies, "It's unlimited, maybe 2,000 or 3,000."

Quraishi also talks to police officials, men who earnestly insist that those involved in the abuse and sale of boys will certainly be arrested, even if those men are rich and well-connected. That same day, Quraishi films two officers from the same police unit at a bacha bazi party.

It's not the first time that the issue of the sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan has arisen. Several Canadian soldiers and chaplains complained about Afghan soldiers and police, who work alongside Canadians, engaging in the abuse and rape of boys. As with much that might be controversial about our mission in Afghanistan, the matter surfaced and then seemed to disappear in a fog of obfuscation.

Little wonder that the topic - like the alleged abuse of Afghan detainees - is taboo and something that the government and senior military officials would prefer to ignore. The mission in Afghanistan is sold to us as protecting civilians and training an Afghan army and police to eventually take over that mission. Nobody wants us talking about the possibility that the mission includes deliberately ignoring what we consider evil committed by allies in Afghanistan. That would mean debating a moral quandary. And the morality of the mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be crystal clear. Essentially, what everybody is ignoring is the possibility that "getting the job done" in Afghanistan (as the military usually describes it) might mean turning a blind eye to pedophilia. In Canada, of course, blithely ignoring pedophilia is utterly unacceptable.

One can read about Afghan practices in newspapers or magazines. One can read editorials and columns about the intricacies of the West's role in Afghanistan. But watching what unfolds in this Frontline episode is an entirely different matter. Seeing the faces of boys who are sex slaves is unnerving. It's not so easy to ignore or put aside what you've seen for yourself. The program concludes with an account of an attempt to rescue of one of the "dancing boys" bought by Dastager. The boy is 11 years old.

The program declines to delve into the complexity of foreign armies and diplomats confronting the bacha bazi tradition and all the attendant meanings. It asks us to think about what it reveals. One United Nations official does speak, though. Radhika Coomaraswamy says she is horrified by the Frontline footage shown to her. She also says she has raised the issue with Afghans and the diplomatic community. "At no point do they say this doesn't happen. It's just a kind of, 'Let's not talk about it.' You know, it's a taboo subject."

Right, but anyone watching this can only be disgusted.

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Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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