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Preventing Underage Fighters

NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

20 Oct. 2011

On the religious holiday of Eid this year, President Karzai spent time talking with a number of boys, all younger than eighteen. They had one thing in common apart from their youth – they were all groomed by the Taliban to be suicide bombers.

Surrounded by press, the boys were each given a microphone to tell their story.

"The Taliban gave me a suicide vest and a weapon and some other people there told me to go to the PRT. When I went there, they told me to go to the Americans. When I saw the soldiers at the gate, I surrendered myself to them,” one 16 year-old boy told the crowd.

Facing the President he begged him not to let him go – or the Taliban would kill him. “My mother is dead and my father doesn't care about me,” he pleaded.

A 15 year-old boy then told the surrounding elders he was given an amulet and told that when he detonated himself, he would be protected by holy text written inside while those around him died.

A valuable asset for terrorists

Over the last year, independent human rights organisations, Afghan security forces and the UN claim that hundreds of children, some as young as seven and eight years old, have been used by the insurgents in armed conflict. Dee Brillenburg Wurth, child protection advisor with the UN's assistance mission in Afghanistan says children are valuable to armed groups.

"It's very attractive for armed groups to have children – that's why there are so many in the world. They’re very easy to manipulate, they're scared of nothing, they're small, they're fast, they look innocent, so people won't suspect them so quickly,” she explains.

A number of suicide attacks have targeted the capital. Kabul's Police Chief General Mohammad Ayoub Salangi met the group of 20 boys pardoned by the President on Eid and said it was an emotional experience.

“I cannot express my feelings…. It is the biggest persecution that they are doing to our people, our children, our history and our country Afghanistan,” he said.

On their website, the Taliban have denied using children as soldiers or suicide attackers and their own code of conduct urges fighters to protect civilians, something which ISAF spokesperson Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson says their actions on the ground contradict.

“The Taliban are killing more than 80% of the civilians that perish in this conflict through direct action,” says Jacobsen. “I arrived here in June and one of the first news that I read was an 8 year-old girl where Taliban put an explosive into her plastic bag, sent her to the police car. It was my introduction to Afghanistan and it hurt me deeply that children are abused in this way,” he says.

Last year the UN blacklisted a number of armed groups like the Taliban for recruiting under-eighteens. But included also on the list were several problems with the Afghan National Police (ANP). However, the Deputy Director for Gender and Human Rights, Colonel Sayed Omar Saboor says the ANP sent out their own research teams to the provinces and were unable to find any underage police.

Education is key

In January 2011 a special agreement was signed between the UN and the Afghan government to implement an action plan to stop underage recruitment. Today, members of the police and the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan are working on a nationwide awareness campaign to include billboards, notebooks and even mugs.

“When an Afghan National Policeman wants to drink a cup of tea, they'll see this message, that we should not recruit kids under 18,” says Colonel Saboor.

International law, the Afghan constitution and Islamic Sharia law all state clearly that children should not be used in combat, but part of the problem lies in the fact that many births go unregistered, so it's often hard to establish an Afghan's true age. But with help from UNAMA, Dee Wurth says the ANP recruitment agencies are being taught how to recognise an underage ANP hopeful.

"Many children have falsified ID cards to join the ANP and we've given 150 people training on how to assess that somebody is not yet 18 even though his ID card says so,” Wurth explains.

Meanwhile, the ANP in Kabul remain vigilant. Despite some high-profile attacks like the recent one on the US embassy, General Salangi claims the police are able to stop around 90% of attacks on the capital. But when it comes to children, he says the solution is education.

“They have to guide the youths of Afghanistan to education and into schools and not use them as suicide bombers. Firstly this kid will lose his life and secondly his family will be devastated. And the majority of our people will be also injured, killed and then their family, friends and relatives will be hurt too,” Salangi says.

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