By: Sara Spowart and Ahmad Waheed
According to the organization Child Soldiers International, the internationally agreed upon definition for a child soldier is: a child associated with an armed force or armed group (child soldier) who is less than 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.
(Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, 2007.)
Children are very vulnerable in conflict-ridden areas such as Afghanistan and need to be protected. The use of children as soldiers causes significant psychological and physical development challenges. Many of these children mostly aged less than 18 years old are used to do hard physical labor or are sexually abused. These children are both taken by force or are recruited by the Taliban and Afghan police forces as fighters.
According to many different international organizations, the use of children (who classify as individuals less than 18 years of age or less than 15 years of age depending on the law) for war and conflict is illegal. Under the International Labour Law, the use of children under age 18 in armed conflict is the worst form of child labor. Under International Criminal Law, the use of children in armed forces is a war crime. Under this, sexual slavery is also a war crime and a crime against humanity. Under International Human Rights Law, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), the minimum age to participate in hostilities and compulsory armed conflict is age 18 (Child Soldiers International, 2015).
However, in spite of these international laws and agreements, due to the supply and demand of the on-going conflict there continues to be a high demand for child soldiers in Afghanistan. Over 50 % of Afghan population is under 18 years old who are easy prey for the armed groups. The high casualty rates of Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents create a constant demand for new soldiers. This is especially true with regards to the Afghan national police (ANP) in remote districts and Afghan local Police (ALP). The Afghan interior ministry official who didn’t want to be named has denied the presence of child soldiers. According to him, “it is to a great extent exaggerated. Within the official Tashkil [format] of 157,000 police throughout the country, the chances of recruitment are low, because the procedures and recruitment eligibility requirements are very strict, and our donors, especially Americans are closely watching it and because of the legitimate sensitivities, would not allow that to happen. In the Afghan Local Police, however, some irregularities have been witnessed. That has to do more with ‘Tea boys’, than with child soldiers. Even in that front, I don’t think you would find them within the Tashkil, rather in areas that exist, they are brought by Commanders and are paid by themselves and not the Government or official channel.”
Yet, despite Afghan interior official reassurance that child soldier recruitment is not a legitimate concern in Afghanistan, it is difficult to adequately determine the actual age of Afghan children. This is due to the country’s poor health information infrastructure, which lacks a mechanism to properly register birth dates. Kandahar University economics professor, Ahmad Wali Popal states, “(The Afghan) government needs strict policies regarding child labor and child solders when conducting the recruitment process. Many underage children have falsely registered their age in their national id’s in order to be recruited and to earn for their families.” Although the Afghan government is now in the process of beginning an ambitious project of electronic identification card distribution, it will take years to address this challenge.
Aside from concerns regarding child soldier recruitment with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, a large recruitment pool for Taliban insurgents are also children.
For example 224 children are being accused of supporting the Taliban against the Afghan government and are now under the custody of the Afghan government. These 224 children created a multiplying impact that affects the stability of Afghanistan. Many suicide bombers used against the US allied security forces and Afghan governments are young children indoctrinated by Taliban recruiters in religious schools outside Afghan borders in Pakistan. Many religious families send their children for religious studies to Pakistan where they are not only provided with free room and board, but also with a free education.
Another contributing factor that pushes families to send their children to become child soldiers is the need to earn an income for survival. High unemployment causes families to do whatever is necessary to obtain money for food and living costs. An uncle of a child soldier in the southern province of Kandahar stated “Afghan security forces pay sufficient and regular salary and it is a good opportunity for young unskilled and less educated youngsters.” Kandahar University economics professor, Ahmad Wali Popal also confirms that high unemployment is a major factor in child soldier recruitment and states that “child soldiers come from poor families mainly those who have lost the head of their family or the one who was responsible for the earnings and management of their respective family as a result of war, conflicts or other incidents.”
In addition to recruitment by the Afghan Local Police and families pushing their children into combat for an income, armed Taliban groups and ISIS also recruit children to be child soldiers in Afghanistan. This is a horrendous child rights abuse and crime. However, it does not seem to draw as much attention and focus from the U.S. and NATO allied nations as other issues in Afghanistan, the Taliban and ISIS. This topic deserves greater attention because it has important implications for the future of terrorist and militant activities in this area. In Afghanistan, more than 65% of the population is under the age of 25 years (United States Committee on Foreign Relations, 2013). This means that the majority of the population is children and young adults. This is the population most likely to be recruited and used as child soldiers. This population is most likely to become the backbone and fuel for fighting and conflict. It is vitally important that the issue of child recruitment by the Afghan military, the Taliban and ISIS is paid attention to.
Efforts to create better job opportunities and earn an income for youth in these countries could potentially make a difference in the recruitment of children in the military. Children and young adolescents need to have other work opportunities than becoming a child soldier. The ramifications of this are not only child abuse but also continued damage to the development and infrastructure of Afghan society and counter terrorism efforts in the region. This alarming issue deserves greater attention because it has important implications for the future of security and stability in this area. It is vitally important that the issue of child recruitment by the Taliban, ISIS and the Afghan security forces is paid attention to. This is not only a children’s rights issue but also a matter of the country’s future, as Afghan children will shape the future of this still-broken nation.
Ahmad Waheed is an Afghan analyst and commentator on political and socio-economic affairs in Afghanistan and Dr.Sara Spowart is lecturer at Middlebury Institute of Institute of International Studies CA, USA.
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Testimony of Ambassador James F. Dobbins Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee December 10, 2013. United States Committee on Foreign Relations. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Dobbins_Testimony1.pdf