Child Soldiers: The Other Taliban and Al-Qaeda Militants

A poignant reality of contemporary conflicts is that increasingly children are being used as cheap and readily available weapons of war. From Colombia to Sri Lanka, from Sierra Leone to Uganda, thousands of children have been used in armed conflict situations. In Afghanistan, our forces are seeing the increasing use of children in combat operations, including as suicide bombers.” ~  Senator Roméo A. Dallaire – Retired Lieutenant General and former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) & Ishmael Beah – Former child soldier, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and a UNICEF representative from Sierra Leone, August 18, 2010.

In the city of Peshawar, situated along Northwest Pakistan’s tribal area, lies Kachegori – one of the makeshift camps erected to house nearly one million citizens displaced by warring between the Taliban and the Pakistani Army.

More than 15,000 children call Kachegori Camp home, including Wasifullah and Abdurrahman who, in an interview with Frontline correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, call themselves best friends.

However, despite their shared interests and deep camaraderie, the boys hold opposing views on who’s to blame for the bombings and missile attacks that destroyed their village.

Wasifullah describes finding his 12 year old cousin among the 80 civilians who were killed by an American missile attack.

“His body was being eaten by dogs,” Wasifullah says, his face void of any emotion. “We brought his remains home in bags, [but] we could only find his legs, so we buried [his legs] in our village.”

Obaid-Chinoy notes that although American missile strikes “target the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders,” they inevitably kill civilians, adding that militants “are quick to make use of the destruction [which] becomes recruitment rally for the Taliban.”

When asked what he aspires to become in the future, Wasifullah replies “God willing, I will join the Taliban.”

In what some ways represents the burgeoning civil war within Pakistan, Wasifullah’s best friend Abdurrahman believes it’s the Taliban who are responsible for the destruction.

When asked what he believes the future hold for him, Abdurrahman replies he’d like “to be a Captain … in the Pakistani Army and kill all the terrorists in Pakistan.”

When confronted with the notion of the two boys meeting in battle, Obaid-Chinoy inquires whether each youngster would be willing to take the life of his best friend.

“Yes,” replies Abdurrahman, the future captain of the Pakistani Army. “If [Wasifullah] is attacking the army, I will retaliate fiercely.”

“Definitely,” counters Wasifullah, the prospective Taliban militant. “If [Abdurrahman] does wrong, I will fight him.”

Displaced, discontented and disconcerted, Wasifullah and Abdurrahman are eager to take up arms and fight against those whom they perceive to be the cause of the growing strife within Pakistan.

Which side of the fight each boy finds himself on, however, largely depends on which side of the battle is first to recruit him.

Looking South to Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, where the slums have become “a recruiting ground for the next generation of Taliban fighters,” it’s easy to see what becomes of boys like Wasifullah and Abdurrahman.

With nowhere else to go, impoverished children are invited to study at talibanized madrassas. They receive free food and shelter in exchange for their unwavering commitment to learning a bastardized interpretation of the Koran – spending hours rocking back and forth ‘reading’ from a book “written in Arabic, a language they don’t understand.”

It is here they are indoctrinated with the teachings of the Taliban, and of Sharia Law.

“Women are meant for domestic care, and that’s what they should do,” explains Shaheed, a 14 year old madrassa student whose name literally translates as ‘martyr’.

“Sharia Law says it, so why are women wandering around? The government should forbid women and girls from wandering around outside. Just like the government banned plastic bags – no one uses them anymore – we should do the same with women.”

When asked by Obaid-Chinoy what he’ll do after he graduates, Shaheed says he’ll join the Taliban and fully intends to “support them in their war.”

Taking it one step further, Shaheed says he’d ‘love to’ become a suicide bomber, “[because] when I look at suicide bombers younger than me, or my age, I get so inspired by their terrific attacks.”

This sentiment is echoed by Shaheed’s teacher, who jovially tells the Frontline reporter that war is “in our blood.”

“No matter how many Muslims die, we will never run out of sacrificial lambs [children] … [who] consider this an opportunity to achieve martyrdom. Someone who sees death as a blessing — who can defeat him?”

Qari Abdullah is the Taliban leader personally responsible for recruiting children to carry out suicide bombing operations. Abdullah was himself educated in a radicalized madrassa, and as a child was recruited to fight in Afghanistan.

Explaining in detail how he grooms children – some as young as 5 years of age – for a future with the Taliban, Abdullah tells Obaid-Chinoy:

“The kids want to join us because they like our weapons. They don’t use weapons to begin with, they just carry them for us – and off we go. They follow us because they’re just small kids.”

When asked if he thinks it’s wrong to use children for suicide attacks, Abdullah doesn’t flinch.

“If you are fighting, then God provides you with the means. Children are tools to achieve Gods will, and whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it. So it’s fine”

Youngsters who’ve been ‘sacrificed’ often appear in Taliban recruitment videos; Their loyalties are showcased, their final deeds glorified, their pledge to martyrdom chanted in a disturbing lullaby:

If you try to find me / after I have died / you will never find my whole body. / You will find me in tiny little pieces.

Three boys featured in a Taliban propaganda video are Zenola, Sadic, and Mehsud; all three recruits became child suicide bombers who killed six, twenty-two, and twenty-eight respectively.

Wasifullah, Abdurrahman, Shaheed, Zenola, Sadic, and Mehsud – these are The Children of the Taliban: Youngsters who are impoverished from birth, displaced by war, plucked from obscurity, indoctrinated by militants, and ultimately, recruited for terrorism.

They are brought up to believe they’ll be carrying out Gods will; that martyrdom will deliver them eternal salvation.

The indoctrination and recruitment of the Children of the Taliban, in many ways, mirrors the indoctrination and recruitment of Omar Khadr – the Child of Al-Qaeda.

Khadr, a Canadian citizen who, at 15 years of age, was seized by U.S. forces in Afghanistan following an intense firefight, was by every definition a child soldier.

Indoctrinated by his father Ahmed Said Khadr, a senior member of Al-Qaeda, and raised along side the Bin Laden family, Khadr was quite literally Al-Qaeda’s child; a “sacrificial lamb;” a “tool to achieve God’s will.”

Following his capture, however, Khadr became a tool to achieve the Bush Administration’s will; a sacrificial lamb for the Bush/Cheney ‘War on Terror.’

In a 2010 episode of Doc Zone entitled The U.S. vs Omar Khadr, CBC documents the questionable case against, and unjust prosecution of, Khadr; a situation Senator Roméo Dallaire (Lieutenant General, Ret’d) warned of three years earlier:

Canadians must realize by now that the [Harper] government’s cynicism toward Omar Khadr’s tragic predicament reflects an unacceptable moral position. We are permitting the United States to try a Canadian child soldier using a military tribunal whose procedures violate basic principles of justice [...]

In recent years, we have heard troubling facts about Guantanamo Bay and incontrovertible evidence of U.S. malfeasance.

In July, 2006, the United Nations called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, terming the indefinite detention of individuals without a charge “a violation of the convention against torture.” Two months later, more than 600 U.S. legal scholars and jurists called on Congress not to enact the Military Commissions Act of 2006, as it would rob detainees of fundamental protections provided by domestic and international law.

This act allows prosecutors to use evidence gleaned from abusive interrogations, including coercion and torture. The commissions also sabotage individuals’ ability to defend themselves by barring access to exculpatory evidence known to the U.S. government. In Mr. Khadr’s case, documents to be used as evidence for war-crimes charges, laid in February, 2007, have been altered.

Furthermore, Dallaire detailed the global ramifications of prosecuting Khadr, a child soldier, as an adult:

Within the international community, Canada is viewed as gullible for allowing one its citizens to be processed by an illegal tribunal system at Guantanamo, and as hypocritical for quietly acceding to the first ever child-soldier war-crimes prosecution.

Canada’s inaction has profound ramifications. The UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, says Khadr’s prosecution sets a hazardous precedent in international law, which will endanger child soldiers in conflict zones. The impunity enjoyed by the real criminals – those who have recruited child soldiers – continues to the detriment of real victims: the thousands of child soldiers around the world.

Militants throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan are recruiting child soldiers at record pace, using them to monitor the movement of NATO forces to ensure the insurgents’ attacks have maximum impact; Relegating to them the risky assignment of assembling and planting IED’s and land-mines; Arming them with high-tech weaponry and sending them into battle.

As the NATO mission in Afghanistan extends to 2014 and beyond, it’s only a matter of time before soldiers are faced with another ‘Omar Khadr;’ a child in the heart of the battle fighting alongside the either the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

When that time comes, what will NATO’s response be? Will soldiers turn a blind eye to the thousands of youngsters planting IED’s and land-mines? Will child soldiers who engage in armed combat simply be slaughtered alongside those who recruited them? If apprehended, will adolescents follow theprecedent set by the Khadr prosecution, and be arrested, tried, and convicted of war crimes?

It’s time for NATO to live up to it’s international obligations and adhere to the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and “[recognize] the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities … [and] of the need [for] the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

NATO cannot expect to achieve any lasting progress against either the Taliban or Al-Qaeda unless they’re fully prepared to focus, not on the prosecution, but the treatment and rehabilitation of the youngest generation of militant recruits.

Because ultimately, it’s with this generation of children in the Middle East on which the future stability of the entire region rests.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

Watch the documentary, Children of the Taliban.

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