All of this was so disconcerting that the Defense Department hired Cardinalli, a social scientist, to examine this mystery. Her report, "Pashtun Sexuality," startled not even one Afghan. But Western forces were shocked -- and repulsed.
For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means "boy player." The men like to boast about it.
"Having a boy has become a custom for us," Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan Province, told a Reuters reporter. "Whoever wants to show off should have a boy."
Baghlan Province is in the northeast, but Afghans say pedophilia is most prevalent among Pashtun men in the south. The Pashtun are Afghanistan's most important tribe. For centuries, the nation's leaders have been Pashtun.
President Hamid Karzai is Pashtun, from a village near Kandahar, and he has six brothers. So the natural question arises: Has anyone in the Karzai family been bacha baz? Two Afghans with close connections to the Karzai family told me they know that at least one family member and perhaps two were bacha baz. Afraid of retribution, both declined to be identified.
As for Karzai, an American who worked in and around his palace in an official capacity for many months told me that homosexual behavior "was rampant" among "soldiers and guys on the security detail. They talked about boys all the time." He added, "I didn't see Karzai with anyone. He was in his palace most of the time." He, too, declined to be identified.
In Kandahar and other towns, dance parties are a popular, often weekly, pastime. Young boys dress up as girls, wearing makeup and bells on their feet, and dance for a dozen or more leering middle-aged men who throw money at them and then take them home. A recent State Department report called "dancing boys" a "widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape."
So, why are American and NATO forces fighting and dying to defend tens of thousands of proud pedophiles, certainly more per capita than any other place on Earth? And how did Afghanistan become the pedophilia capital of Asia?
Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghans cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can't even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle.
"How can you fall in love if you can't see her face?" 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. "We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful."
Even after marriage, many men keep their boys. A favored Afghan expression goes: "Women are for children, boys are for pleasure." Fundamentalist imams, exaggerating a biblical passage on menstruation, teach that women are "unclean." One married man even asked Cardinalli's team "how his wife could become pregnant," her report said. When that was explained, he "reacted with disgust."
That helps explain why women are hidden away -- and stoned to death if they are perceived to have misbehaved. Islamic law also forbids homosexuality. But the pedophiles explain that away. It's not homosexuality, they aver, because they aren't in love with their boys.
Addressing the loathsome mistreatment of Afghan women remains a primary goal for coalition governments, as it should. But what about the boys, thousands upon thousands of little boys who are victims of serial rape over many years, destroying their lives -- and Afghan society?
"There's no issue more horrifying and more deserving of our attention than this," Cardinalli said. "I'm continually haunted by what I saw."
As one boy, in tow of a man he called "my lord," told the Reuters reporter: "Once I grow up, I will be an owner, and I will have my own boys."
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.