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Child soldiers - What's their role in the Afghan conflict?

The recent killing of a 10-year-old boy has highlighted the issue of child soldiers in Afghanistan. Although it's illegal, government forces and insurgents have kept recruiting minors for years. DW examines.

He rose to fame last summer after helping a militia break a Taliban siege in his home province following the death of his father. But the life of 10-year-old Wasil Ahmad - declared a hero by the local Afghan police and used as a poster-child by pro-government forces - was tragically cut short.

Last week, Ahmad, who had just enrolled in fourth grade, was shot in the head twice in a revenge attack by the insurgents as he made his way to school in the volatile city of Tarinkot, capital of Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan Province.

And yet tragic as it may be, the case of Ahmad is not an isolated one in a country destabilized by decades of violence.

Driving factors

Although the use of child soldiers is illegal in Afghanistan, which ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994, children have been recruited and used by both the armed forces and armed groups for years.

According to the London-based charity Child Soldiers International, this is triggered by a complex set of reasons, including duty to the family, patriotism, honor and economic difficulties, as these boys are often the sole breadwinner for the family.

"Poverty continues to be the main driver behind underage recruitment. Many children join the Afghan Local police (ALP) and Afghan National Police (ANP) to support their families. In addition, a deep sense of filial responsibility and prestige, which comes from joining the national security forces, continues to provide a strong social incentive to enlist," said the charity in a September report.

As for girls, the number of them associated with armed groups and security forces in Afghanistan is minimal, Danielle Bell, head of the Human Rights Unit at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told DW. "In five years of monitoring and reporting, the UN has verified one case of child recruitment of a girl who was a trained suicide bomber."

Boys as 'fighting-age males'

Shortcomings such as inadequate age verification procedures - often determined by signs of puberty rather than actual age - low levels of birth registration and an easy ability to falsify identity documents facilitate recruitment, which can be formal or informal.

Afghan security forces patrol at the site of a suicide bombing at the home of a prominent politician in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on January 17, 2016 (Photo: Omid Khanzada/Imagespic/ABACAPRESS.COM)

Children have been recruited and used by security forces for years

For instance, explains the charity, some children have been used by the Afghan National Police as cooks, "tea boys" and guards at checkpoints.

There is also anecdotal evidence of informal recruitment of children for the purpose of Bacha Bazi or "dancing boys," said Bell. However, due to the sensitivities associated with this practice, these cases are extremely challenging to verify.

Others have been recruited by the Taliban to carry out suicide attacks, plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and used in active combat as spies or for sexual purposes.

Counter-terrorism expert Tomas Olivier says Afghan children have always played a rather prominent role in the Afghan conflict. "Boys - sometimes as young as six years old - are often regarded as 'fighting-age males,' and trained in the use of weapons. But they are also often killed or injured in combat operations, or end up in the custody of the Afghan authorities," said Olivier, who is also CEO of security consultancy Lowlands Solutions Netherlands (LSN).

Force enablers?

"From my own experience in the central province of Uruzgan between 2006 and 2010," said the security expert, "Afghan children were primarily used for planting IEDs and for so-called 'spotter'-activities, in which they provided essential information on the whereabouts and troop movements of foreign ISAF forces."

From an operational perspective, the children are regarded by armed groups such as the Taliban as so-called "force enablers" in a "righteous" fight against a foreign occupation, Olivier added. The insurgents also view young children as less likely to be considered "enemy targets" by government and Western troops given that it is 'morally unjustifiable' to engage children in combat situations.

"From a gruesome and rather morbid military perspective this provides the Taliban with a favorable position on the battlefield," said the former intelligence officer.

A widespread issue

The UN Secretary-General's 2015 annual report documented the ongoing abuse, saying that in 2014 alone 68 children (65 boys, 3 girls) - of which 22 were verified, one each by the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan local police, and 20 associated with the Taliban and other armed groups - were recruited. In 2015, the number of verified cases jumped to 43.

However, the world body warned that the real number could be much higher. "Owing to widespread under-reporting, these figures do not accurately reflect the situation," said the report.

The Child Soldiers International report said that research conducted on check posts outside Tarinkot City in 2015 showed that five out of ten ANP check posts in that province were staffed with visibly younger officers. "They had been performing all responsibilities of a police officer, which included securing checkpoints and engaging in combat for the last few years," said the report.

The charity also said they interviewed local journalists, community elders and other residents in the restive provinces of Kunar, Logar, and Zabul who said that "10 percent of law enforcement officials in these areas are suspected to be underage."

"Compounding this abuse, some children suspected of association with armed groups have been unlawfully detained on national security related charges and experienced ill treatment or torture," said Child Soldiers International.

'A devastating impact'

The UN indicates that according to the Afghan Ministry of Justice, 258 boys were held in juvenile rehabilitation centers across the country on national security-related charges, including association with armed groups as of December 2014. Of 105 child detainees interviewed by the UN between February 2013 and December 2014, 44 having been reportedly subjected to ill-treatment or torture.

"The conflict is having a devastating impact on children," said UNAMA's Bell. The rights expert explains the main concern for children associated with armed groups, or rejected by the national security forces, is the lack of reintegration and rehabilitation support, including psycho-social services in Afghanistan.

"There is little to no economic alternatives for children who are susceptible to join armed opposition groups and/or the ANSF. This is the same for those associated with armed groups. That association often leaves them disconnected with their own communities, where reintegration is extremely limited," said Bell, adding that more efforts are needed to improve both social services and the communities they are returning to.

But that's not all. Like 10-year-old Ahmad, many other children end up paying for their involvement in the conflict with their lives. According to the UN, at least 710 children were killed and 1,792 injured in 2014, a 48 percent increase in the number of casualties - mostly caused by ground engagements - compared to the previous year.

United Nations data from October 2015 strongly suggests that approximately 10 Afghan children died in the Kunduz siege in September last year, and almost 50 were severely injured as a result of actual "combat-related" activities.

(Photo: picture-alliance/dpa)

'The children are regarded by the Taliban as 'force enablers' in a 'righteous' fight against a foreign occupation,' say experts

Serious concerns

In 2011, the Afghan government signed an Action Plan with the UN, committing to protect children as well as end and prevent their recruitment and use.

As the children's charity points out, progress has been made, including a planned national birth registration strategy, an awareness raising campaign on the risks of recruitment in vulnerable communities and a presidential decree criminalizing the recruitment and use of children into state security forces.

Moreover, the Ministry of Interior is leading on the expansion of Child Protection Units. According to the UN, the primary focus of these units is to assess the age of new recruits. There are currently six units located in Herat, Ghor, Badghis, Farah, Mazar and Jalalabad. And the goal is to expand the units to all 34 recruitment centers.

However, serious concerns remain, including the lack of services for children rejected from recruitment or released from active service remained a significant concern. The UN and human rights groups have also criticized the widespread impunity for violations of children's rights, particularly within the national police and local police.

In this context, Alexey Yusupov, director of the Afghanistan office of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), argues that since child soldiers mostly fill in the gaps in areas where the Afghan state is either extremely weak or not present at all, it would be "unreasonable" to expect any fundamental changes anytime soon.

"As long as the monopoly of force is not established in the country, this phenomenon will persist," Yusupov warned.