On Tuesday, PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] Frontline/World aired a half hour documentary by Pakistani filmmaker/correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who traveled across the country to explore the growing popularity of the Taliban, as well as its impact on the next generation. I know many feel over-saturated with news regarding FATA and Swat, but I highly recommend watching this film [click the image above to view]. Obaid-Chinoy uncovers some shocking statements in the numerous interviews she conducts througout the segment.
I have always been interested in the psychological effect of war and violence on children. In the case of Pakistan, many living in the tribal areas and the frontier have witnessed countless incidents of death and violence at a young age; many have lost family members not to old age or sickness, but to bombings and drone attacks. They have lost the innocence that children are supposed to have at that age. In the film, ten year old Qainat, who lives in a rehabilitation center in Peshawar after a mortar struck her home (killing her sister and most of her extended family), told Obaid-Chinoy, “We saw the dead body of a policeman tied to a pole. His head had been chopped off. It was hanging between his legs. There was a note saying that if anyone moved the dead body, they would share its fate.”
What I also found significant was that the film highlighted the nuances of this conflict – that this war is not purely black-and-white. Although many blame Al Qaeda or the Taliban for the violence, many also blame the Pakistani Army for the ground operations that drove them from their homes or the United States for the recent drone attacks. According to the filmmaker, “There have been more than 30 U.S. missile strikes in the tribal areas in the last year. They target Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, but civilians are often killed as well. It’s an easy recruiting tool for the Taliban.”
In the tribal areas, the Taliban has for some time been running their own schools and producing propaganda videos. What is disturbing is how many films like the one shown above are produced to recruit children into the Taliban. According to Obaid-Chinoy, the militants “target poor families and get them to send their children [to these madrassas].” The children are given free food and shelter and the families are sometimes paid. Schools like these are now said to be opening in Swat.
In one haunting interview, a teenager in Swat who joined the Taliban a year ago when he was 13 described his journey, “First it was the sermons at the mosque, then being recruited to a madrassa, and finally spending months in military training…They teach us to use a machine gun, Kalashnikov…Then they teach us how to do a suicide attack.” When Obaid-Chinoy asked if he’s like to carry out a suicide attack, the boy answered, “If God gives me strength.”
The PBS correspondent also reported the Taliban’s influence is slowly seeping into Pakistan’s major cities, including Karachi. In the last year, she noted, the slums of Karachi have become a new safe haven for these militants “who use criminal networks to raise funds for their war.” The poor areas of the city are increasingly becoming a new breeding ground for the next generation of Taliban fighters. Shaheed, a boy at a madrassa in Karachi, told Obaid-Chinoy calmly, “When I look at suicide bombers younger than me, or my age, I get so inspired by their terrific attacks…I would love to [perpetrate a suicide bombing] but only if I get permission from my father.”
When asked who he thought would win the war, Shaheed’s teacher provided a chilling response: “It’s in our blood. No matter how many Muslims die, we will never run out of sacrificial lambs.”
Obaid-Chinoy managed to also interview the Taliban commander personally responsible for recruiting children. Qari Abdullah, who revealed he recruits children as young as five, six and seven years old, told her, “Children are tools to achieve God’s will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it.”
This film wouldn’t be nearly as disturbing if we had some assurance that the government was countering this extremist influence. However, with the decaying status of government schools, many poor families may feel the only option is to send their children to madrassas, particularly when they receive free boarding and food. [That is not to say that all madrassas breed extremists or suicide bombers, but a portion do.] If we were to provide another option to families - a diverse and more secular education – would parents still choose to send their children to madrassas?
Moreover, after a drone attack occurs, the film showed Taliban commanders holding rallies to vilify the United States and subsequently recruit further followers. Boys or men who have lost family members in the attacks often join seeking revenge. Given that Pakistan has a strong honor culture, that is not a surprising trend. However, are those same rallies matched by the Pakistan Army or the government villifying the Taliban after the havoc they wreak? I read statements, but I have not noted a clear strategic communications effort at the grassroots level. The lack of a coherent and tangible strategy is problematic in the war of perceptions, influence, and ideas.
It is one thing to envelop men into the shadows of militancy – but children? What is truly disgusting is the recruitment of child soldiers and child suicide bombers is not a new but an evolving trend. In Sierra Leone and Uganda, [as well as numerous other countries], hundreds of thousands have been turned into child soldiers, used to fight in civil wars. In Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, militant groups have used children to perpetrate suicide attacks. These examples are further evidence of this haunting and horrific phenomenon – a trend where groups manipulate a child’s innocence to warp their sense of right and wrong. In Pakistan, it seems that trend now persists among the Taliban’s next generation of fighters. What will we do to counter it?