Below is my reaction piece to a Washington Post article on rehabilitating child militants in Pakistan. The article was first published on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel:
On Sunday, the Washington Post covered the progress of a new boarding school established to rehabilitate and deradicalize former child militants in Swat Valley, Pakistan. The army-sponsored center currently houses 86 young boys who were either captured by the military or brought in by their families. According to the Post, “Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.”
The rehabilitation and study of these boys could provide deeper insight into the indoctrination of child militants in Pakistan as well as the broader psychology of child soldiers as a whole. According to Amnesty International, “Approximately 250,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to be fighting in conflicts around the world.” Moreover, although many child soldiers are between the ages of 15 and 18 years of age, significant recruitment starting at the age of 10 and the use of even younger children has been recorded.
In Pakistan, a disturbing number of suicide bombers are between the ages of 12-18 years old, about 90%, noted Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain, who is the senior editor at Newsline magazine and the author of Frontline Pakistan. However, in the PBS Frontline World documentary, Children of the Taliban, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy interviewed Taliban commander Qari Abdullah who revealed he also recruits children as young as five, six and seven years old, emphasizing, “Children are tools to achieve God’s will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it.”
In an interview with BBC News Hour, Chinoy noted that one of the most interesting things about meeting with the Taliban, particularly the younger militants, was that they “all look like they’re in a trance, they rock back and forth, it’s as if they’re reciting things that they have been programmed to recite.”
Pakistani authorities rescued 20 young boys who had been among hundreds recruited by the Taliban, reported media outlets in July 2009. Major Nasir Khan, a military spokesman in Swat, stated the child fighters had been heavily brainwashed by militants. When asked what they had been told by the Taliban, the boys reportedly said, “The Pakistan army is the ally of the Western capitalist world, they are the enemies of Islam. The fight against them is justified, they are apostates, the friends of the infidels.”
In the upcoming issue of the CTC Sentinel, S.H. Tajik notes the main theme in lectures in both the senior (ages 16 years and older) and junior (ages 7 to 15 years) camps centered on revenge. Given that honor and revenge are intrinsically linked in Pashtun culture, this tactic is an important recruitment mechanism, and instructors often “call attention to the helplessness of Muslims whose daughters and sisters are dishonored by non-Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Young would-be suicide bombers are also persuaded by the promise of Paradise. In January 2010, the Pakistani military uncovered a Taliban compound in Nawaz Kot, allegedly used to train child suicide bombers, (though the Pakistani Taliban denies the compound was theirs). According to CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, children are shown brightly colored paintings meant to depict the heavenly delights that await them, including rivers of milk and honey and female virgins. The images stand “in clear contrast to the barren and harsh landscape surrounding [them],” drastically different from the poverty many of these young recruits face on a daily basis.
At the army-sponsored rehabilitation school, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha says the patterns among the 86 young boys have so far been revealing. The Post reports that Peracha has observed that “most of the boys are middle children who have been lost in the shuffle of large, poor families with absent fathers. Few had much formal schooling, many are aggressive, and most score poorly on educational aptitude tests.”
While the efforts of this center should be lauded, more resources must be allocated to absorb the overwhelming number of child fighters, particularly as the Pakistani military gains ground against militants in Pakistan. The center, as a pilot school, can apply best practices from successful programs rehabilitating child soldiers in other countries. In Sri Lanka, for example, the government established numerous transit centers as part of a complex program to rehabilitate former child soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The International Cricket Council (ICC), the Sri Lankan Cricket Association and UNICEF have also partnered in this effort, sponsoring a program that uses cricket to rehabilitate and engage these children.
There are universal lessons that can be drawn from past and current rehabilitation efforts. By using innovative programs like sports, children are engaged as children, not merely as reformed militants. While child soldier recruitment and indoctrination obviously varies from conflict to conflict, such programs can be adapted to the nuances of Pakistan’s situation.
Pakistan should also assess the complex root causes behind this phenomenon in order to design solutions. If a number of these children are from poor families, de-radicalization programs should also include skill-building courses that will provide these young boys opportunities after they return to their families. If rehabilitation centers are replicated, they should be adapted for the nuances of that particular village, tribal culture, and society. A one-size-fits-all model will not be able to address the complexities of Pakistan, and needs assessments must be conducted to ensure these regional differences are taken into consideration.
The growing phenomenon of child militants in Pakistan is a horrific reality, one mirrored in various conflicts throughout history. Children are targeted because they can be easily manipulated and brainwashed by a group’s ideology. In Pakistan’s northwest areas and tribal agencies, there is a younger generation whose lives have been punctured by violence — bombings, drone attacks, ongoing fighting between militants and the military. The psychological impact of conflict not just on Pakistani child militants but Pakistani children as a whole is an issue that we neglect at our peril.