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.

The Crisis In Gaza — An International Tipping Point

If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state. – Ehud Barak

This sentiment expressed by Israel’s former Prime Minister and current Defence minister Barak provides ammunition to those who refer to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as Israeli Apartheid. In 2008, the BBC reported that little more than basic humanitarian aid had been permitted to enter the Gaza Strip by the Israeli government. In recent years the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip has intensified further, leaving an estimated 1.5 million residents of the coastal territory in a state of abject poverty. The plight of the people of Gaza further deteriorated following the December 2008- January 2009 Gaza war.

The military assault on the Gaza Strip by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) completely devastated the region, the U.N. World Food program noting “it was precisely the strategic economic areas that Gaza depends on to relieve its dependency on aid that were wiped out.” A similar assessment was given by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights which found “it was obvious that IDF intended to erase any civilization features in the Gaza Strip. They deliberately and systematically destroyed the entire vital facilities to make Gaza go decades back.”

The Goldstone Report, an independent U.N. investigation into the Gaza conflict, concluded that Israel’s military operation was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.”

As a direct result of this ‘Israeli Apartheid’, Gaza remains in a state of ruin, A 2009 Red Cross report concluding Israel’s blockade is ‘strangling’ the economy, and preventing reconstruction efforts, warning “Gaza neighbourhoods particularly hard hit by the Israeli strikes will continue to look like the epicenter of a massive earthquake unless vast quantities of cement, steel and other building materials are allowed into the territory for reconstruction.”

As Israel continues to resist international calls to lift the blockade, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip grows increasingly dire. This is precisely the reason a fleet of ships called dubbed Freedom Flotillas set out to defy the blockade; seeking to deliver tens of thousands of tonnes of food, medicine and reconstruction materials directly to the people of Gaza.

While they expected to meet resistance, no one could have predicted the bloody assault by the IDF on the Turkish flagged ship, the Mavi Marmara. So egregious were the actions of the Israeli government, so disproportionate was the use of force, a major in the IDF reserves felt the need to pen a scathing op-ed, declaring “the events off the shores of Gaza last week, in which Israeli commandos stormed a blockade-busting aid ship and killed nine activists, were a painful reminder that I also belong to a class of Israelis that is deeply concerned about the direction of our country. Increasingly, our conflict with the Palestinians is separating us, not only from our moral faculties, but also from the rest of our senses.”

The U.N. Security Council condemned the actions of the IDF and called for “a full investigation into the matter and … a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”

The request for an independent investigation was immediately rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attributes the international condemnation he’s facing to rampant anti-semitism, claiming “the State of Israel faces an attack of international hypocrisy.”

However, past events reveal that the true hypocrisy rests with Israel.

In his article Echoes of Raid on ‘Exodus’ Ship in 1947, Robert Mackey reports on the “parallels between Monday’s killing of pro-Palestinian activists by Israel’s military in international waters, as commandos intercepted a flotilla of ships trying to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza, and a seminal event in the Jewish struggle for an independent homeland.” Mackey includes an obituary of the captain of the Exodus 1947, adding “the violent way the British Navy seized that ship and deported the refugees backfired, creating global sympathy for the plight of stateless Jews.”

The obituary reads, in part:

“The refugees had no legal authority to enter Palestine, and the British were determined to block the ship. In the battle that ensued, three Jews aboard the Exodus were killed. The ship’s passengers – more than 4,500 men, women and children – were ultimately deported to Germany.

The attack and its aftermath, which focused attention on the plight of many European Jews after the war, made headlines worldwide and helped marshal support for an Israeli state. […]

Captain Ahronovitch was 23 when he took the helm of the Exodus. On July 11, 1947, he picked up the refugees at Sète, in southern France. On July 18, as the ship neared the coast of Palestine, the British Navy intercepted it. Captain Ahronovitch tried to break through, but two British destroyers rammed the ship.

Several hours of fighting followed, with the ship’s passengers spraying fuel oil and throwing smoke bombs, life rafts and whatever else came to hand, down on the British sailors trying to board, The Times reported at the time. Soon the British opened fire. Two immigrants and a crewman on the Exodus were killed; scores more were wounded, many seriously. The ship was towed to Haifa, and from there its passengers were deported, first to France and eventually to Germany, where they were placed in camps near Lübeck.”

Mackey also cites the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose records state “large protests erupted on both sides of the Atlantic. The ensuing public embarrassment for Britain played a significant role in the diplomatic swing of sympathy toward the Jews and the eventual recognition of a Jewish state in 1948.”

Israel’s self-righteous outrage extends to the massive public relations strategy it undertook following the massacre on the Mavi Marmara. In his article How Israeli propaganda shaped U.S. media coverage of the flotilla attack, Glenn Greenwald notes “it was clear from the moment news of the flotilla attack emerged, that Israel was taking extreme steps to suppress all evidence about what happened” to prevent reports which undoubtedly would contradict it’s own version of events.

As passengers and journalists return home and detail their their experiences aboard the IDF raided ship, Israel’s account of what happened continues to unravel.

Autopsy reports of nine Turkish men killed by the IDF on the Mavi Marmara conclude the nine men were shot a total of 30 times, five of whom were killed by gunshot wounds to the head. This contradicts Israeli assertions the IDF fired in ‘self defence.’

A detailed Guardian account of the autopsy’s states “a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back. A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has US citizenship, was shot five times from less than 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. Two other men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back.”

Award-winning journalist Man Blumenthal has also been hard at work debunking Israel’s propaganda, exposing outrageously doctored audio released by IDF, “which purports to show flotilla passengers telling the IDF to ‘go back to Auschwitz’.” Caught red handed, Blumenthal further reports on the non-clairification clarification made by the IDF, revealing the lengths the Israeli government will go to in an effort to garner international sympathy.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is once again calling for an end to the Israeli blockade, proclaiming “had the Israeli government heeded to international calls and my own strong and urgent and persistent call to lift the blockade of Gaza, this would not have happened.” There are also reports that Moon will move forward with an independent investigation of Israel’s raid the Gaza bound ship, despite the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu.

It’s important that the international community support the actions called for by Moon. Moreover, it’s imperative that the United States, Canada, and other enablers of Israeli Apartheid recognize their role in creating the international crisis.

Mark LeVine, a professor of history at UC Irvine, equates the ‘friendship’ between the United States and Israel to the relationship a drug dealer has with an addict. “We ‘defend’ Israel from every criticism – ‘No! It doesn’t have a problem!’ ‘It’s the only democracy in the region!’ ‘We stand with Israel!’ … The occupation (of Gaza) has been an act of sheer brutality for decades. What has happened in Gaza the US and the world community have allowed to happen.”

An editorial in The Nation details the role the international community played in creating the crisis in Gaza:

“The attack on the Freedom Flotilla is the culmination of more than four years of failed policy, in which a siege has been imposed on the entire population of Gaza in an attempt to weaken and isolate Hamas after its victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Israel does not bear sole responsibility for an unjust blockade that also undermines its own long-term security; indeed, the policy was jointly crafted and executed with the United States and has enjoyed the collusion of the European Union, Egypt and even the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority.

The effects of this policy on the people of Gaza have been devastating. According to various UN agencies, the formal economy has collapsed. More than 60 percent of the people are food insecure, and nearly 80 percent depend on the UN for sustenance, with rising levels of malnutrition. The destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure has been comprehensive, with the reduction in electricity supply damaging food production and storage and dangerously limiting access to safe drinking water. The blockade has prevented all but minimal repair of the damage from Israel’s 2008-09 military assault; thousands are still displaced from their homes.”

One distinguished voice to propose a solution for the stalemate in the Middle East comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski, who played a key role in the attainment of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, offers an historical comparison followed by a four step plan to achieving stability between Israel and Palestine.

“More than three decades ago, Israeli statesman Moshe Dayan, speaking about an Egyptian town that controlled Israel’s only outlet to the Red Sea, declared that he would rather have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh. Had his views prevailed, Israel and Egypt would still be in a state of war. Today, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with his pronouncements about the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, is conveying an updated version of Dayan’s credo — that he would rather have all of Jerusalem without peace than peace without all of Jerusalem. […]

First, a solution to the refugee problem involving compensation and resettlement in the Palestinian state but not in Israel. This is a bitter pill for the Palestinians, but Israel cannot be expected to commit political suicide for the sake of peace.

Second, genuine sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of each state, and some international arrangement for the Old City. This is a bitter pill for the Israelis, for it means accepting that the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will become the capital of Palestine.

Third, a territorial settlement based on the 1967 borders, with mutual and equal adjustments to allow the incorporation of the largest West Bank settlements into Israel.

And fourth, a demilitarized Palestinian state with U.S. or NATO troops along the Jordan River to provide Israel greater security.

Most of these parameters have been endorsed in the Arab peace plan of 2002 and by the Quartet. And the essential elements have also been embraced by (Ehud) Barak and another former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Some believe a tipping point was reached when the IDF descended on the Mavi Marmara, slaughtering activists who’s sole intention was to provide relieve the suffering of those in Gaza living under siege. The international community can no longer look the other way when the Israeli government violates international law. It can no longer allow Israel to operate under a separate set of rules when it comes to Middle East policies.

As Bradley Burston of Haaretz puts it, “We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second. For Israel, in the end, this Second Gaza War could be far more costly and painful than the first … We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege, which is itself becoming Israel’s Vietnam.”

Cross-posted at rabble.ca