New Human Rights Watch research shows that the Taliban have been training and deploying children for various military operations including the production and planting of improvised explosive devices (IED). In Kunduz province, the Taliban have increasingly used madrasas, or Islamic religious schools, to provide military training to children between the ages of 13 and 17, many of whom have been deployed in combat.
Taliban Recruitment and Training of Children
The Taliban have recruited and used children as fighters since the 1990s, but Kunduz residents whose sons have been among those recruited, together with analysts who have monitored the recruitment drive, believe that recruitment increased in 2015 due to expanded Taliban operations against Afghan government forces. The establishment of training centers in madrasas in the Taliban’s expanded zone of control in Kunduz also led to increases in child soldier recruitment. Kunduz residents told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban had recruited and deployed more than 100 children from Chahardara district alone in 2015.
Because the Taliban begin the indoctrination of children from an early age, they are easily persuaded to fight. Relatives of child soldiers in Kunduz told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban target children because it is easy to convince them of the righteousness of jihad, and because they are at an age where they do not feel responsible for providing for a family and so are easily persuaded to take on dangerous tasks. In general, children are not recruited by force. However parents who have tried to retrieve their children are usually unable to do so because the Taliban claim that the boys are of age, or are committed to jihad regardless of their age.
The Taliban madrasas attract many poor families because the Taliban cover their expenses and provide food and clothing for the children. In some cases they offer cash to families for sending their boys to the madrasas. An expert on Kunduz told Human Rights Watch that traditionally, even before the Taliban established madrasas in these areas, rural and village families sent at least one son to the local madrasa because of the prestige associated with the status of becoming a mullah (someone educated in the basics of Islamic law). In the cases of child soldiers Human Rights Watch investigated, some boys attended the madrasas in the early morning hours and then attended government schools later in the day. Other boys who had been recruited attended the madrasas full time. For example, “Razeq,” (a pseudonym) 16, a resident of Chahardara district in Kunduz province, is a student in Class 6 at a government-run school, which he attends between 8 a.m. and noon every day. Between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. he attends a madrasa controlled by Malawi Abdul Haq, a Taliban commander in the district. As of late 2015, the madrasa had about 80 students, most of them children between the ages of 13 and 17. All of them are vulnerable to recruitment.
According to some reports, children as young as 10 years old fought with Taliban forces in the battles that led to the Taliban’s temporary takeover of Kunduz. Leila Zerrougui, the UN special representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, told Al-Jazeera that “children between the ages of 10 and 15 were used by the Taliban and dozens of them were deployed” during the fighting in Kunduz in September and October 2015.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits the recruitment or use of children under 15 by parties to a conflict. “Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities” is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which Afghanistan belongs. Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes are subject to prosecution by the ICC or national courts.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (“the Optional Protocol”), which Afghanistan ratified in 2003, states that non-state armed groups may not, under any circumstances, recruit persons under 18 or use them in hostilities. The Optional Protocol also places obligations on governments to “take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices.” Military forces also have an obligation to provide children with special respect and attention. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that governments “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by armed conflict.”
Relatives and Friends of Taliban Child Soldiers Speak Out
The following accounts are based on Human Rights Watch interviews with the relatives of 13 boys recruited into the Taliban in 2015, and interviews with community elders who have worked with the families to try to get the boys released. The names of the boys and other identifying details have been changed for their families’ security. In all cases, the parents tried unsuccessfully to secure the return of their sons. In some cases the children were killed during the fighting in Kunduz in 2015. In each of these cases the Taliban commanders responsible for recruiting the boys were based in Kunduz. Because it was not possible to contact the Taliban for their views on these allegations, we have not referred to these commanders by name.
-Qasem, 15, was a resident of Chahardara district, Kunduz province, where he attended a local madrasa. In June or July 2015, a Taliban military unit recruited him as a soldier. A community elder who has been assisting the families of boys who have been recruited told Human Rights Watch:
In June 2015 Afghan government forces launched a clearing operation in Chahardara district, and both Qasem and Ahmad were deployed. According to a source close to the family who lived in the village where the operation took place:
-Farhad, 17, is from a village in Chahardara district of Kunduz province. A family source said:
-Mati, 15, was also the resident of a village in Chahardara district. In June 2015, after his father died, the Taliban recruited him into an armed group under the command of Commander D. A relative said:
-Malek, 14, a student at a local madrasa, was recruited by his teacher, Commander E, one of the Taliban’s principal recruiters in Chahardara district. A relative said:
-Navid, 16, is a resident of Kunduz center. According to his family, he has been made part of commander B’s bodyguard. He sits at the back of a Taliban commander’s motorcycle and rides with him, carrying a Kalashnikov.