The Taliban’s murder of a 10-year-old Afghan boy this week has cast a spotlight on the practice by US allies of turning children into fighters in the war-torn nation.
Afghans have hailed the heroism of Wasil Ahmad, who the Taliban killed in Uruzgan Province on Monday for fighting alongside his uncle with a US-backed government militia called the Afghan Local Police.
Wasil had won acclaim for helping Afghan Local Police forces break an insurgent siege after his uncle, the unit’s commander, was wounded. He was declared a national hero by the Afghan government and paraded, wearing an oversized uniform and wielding an AK-47.
Overshadowed in the outpouring of grief is the grim practice of allowing children to take up arms, particularly alongside a quasi-official force created by the US military.
“There’s nothing heroic about putting a child in danger by arming him and having him fight in a war. The Taliban killed 10-year-old Wasil Ahmad, but those who encouraged him to fight bear responsibility as well,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior Afghanistan researcher Patricia Gossman said.
Afghan officials said that Wasil Ahmad was not formally part of the Afghan Local Police, but his uncle Samad, whose forces the young man fought alongside, was.
Child soldiering is supposed to be illegal in Afghanistan, but a report from Child Soldiers International in September last year said that recruitment of child soldiers by Afghan security forces, including the Afghan Local Police, is “ongoing,” though at a recently reduced rate.
Created in 2010, the Afghan Local Police is largely an invention of the US military and was initially overseen by elite US special operations forces. Critics have long pointed to persistent human-rights abuse allegations within an entity they fear provides cover for the empowerment of militias.
According to a US government audit in October last year, the US defense department has provided US$469.7 million to the Afghan Local Police from inception through to April last year, and estimates that the force is likely to cost about US$121 million annually to sustain.
The same audit chided the Pentagon for lacking plans to disband the Afghan Local Police or transition its 30,000 fighters to the official security services after US sponsorship ends, a switch currently slated for September this year.
A International Crisis Group report in June last year portrayed the Afghan Local Police as “hastily raised forces with little training” which often inspired the violence it was meant to confront, through “extortion, kidnapping [and] extrajudicial killings.” It warned that the rising tide of violence in Afghanistan creates pressures on the nation’s authorities to turn to the Afghan Local Police as an expedient — despite questions over their the effectiveness and human-rights record.
“A minority of villagers describe it as an indispensable source of protection, without which their districts would become battlegrounds or insurgent havens, but it is more common to hear complaints that Afghan Local Police prey upon the people they are supposed to guard,” the International Crisis Group said.
US military officials in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and US Central Command did not answer media questions about US funding going to Afghan militias that employ child soldiers.
“Recruiting child soldiers violates international law and Afghan law, but tragically it’s been a long-standing practice by some Afghan militias and Afghan Local Police. Even though some of these forces get US support, there has been little effort to hold abusive commanders accountable for such crimes. It’s high time the Afghan government matched its words with action to end the practice of recruiting child soldiers,” Gossman said.