For over two decades, the Taliban have employed children in the forefront of Afghanistan's armed conflicts, utilizing them as combatants, IED planters, and even suicide bombers. It is possible that thousands of children continue to be part of their forces today.
The current attempts by the Taliban to establish a government in Afghanistan present an opportunity for the global community to advocate for an end to child recruitment and the release of children from the Taliban's ranks. For a long time, Taliban commanders have relied on madrasas, Islamic religious schools, to train and provide children as soldiers. Boys as young as 6 were subjected to indoctrination, and by the age of 13, they often possessed firearms skills. Children between 13 and 17 were frequently used in combat. Other actors in the conflict, including the U.S.-backed Afghan government and pro-government forces, have also reportedly recruited and deployed children.
The Taliban recruited children for suicide and other perilous missions, often luring them with deceitful promises of money or other incentives and resorting to threats. A 15-year-old boy, for instance, recounted to United Nations investigators that a Taliban commander ordered him to detonate explosives against Afghan police, assuring him of rewards in paradise. When the boy resisted, the commander threatened to kill him and his parents.
Suicide attacks were rare in Afghanistan until 2005, but they became a prominent war tactic adopted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Since 2014, Taliban-led suicide attacks have caused roughly 6,000 civilian casualties. Armed groups frequently exploit children for such attacks because they are easier to manipulate and may arouse less suspicion than adults.
The conflict in Afghanistan has been one of the deadliest in the world for children, with estimates suggesting around 33,000 children killed or maimed over the past two decades. The death toll among child soldiers can be particularly high. For instance, during a military offensive in Kunduz in 2015, families reported that their 14 and 15-year-old children were killed in combat only weeks after being recruited by the Taliban.
The Taliban have denied using children in "jihadic operations," and their code of conduct claims that "boys without beards" are not allowed in military centers. However, the U.N. has verified numerous cases of child recruitment by the Taliban in recent years, including a significant increase in 2020, and they warn that the actual figures are likely much higher. Notably, the Taliban have shown some responsiveness to accusations of child recruitment, as evidenced by the release of 14 boys from their ranks in 2019 following community complaints.
The U.S.-backed former Afghan government and pro-government forces also share responsibility for recruiting and deploying child soldiers. The harsh treatment of children suspected of Taliban ties likely fueled anti-government resentment, as they were detained and tortured instead of receiving the rehabilitation assistance mandated by international law. Investigations revealed that nearly 44 percent of detained children on conflict-related charges reported torture, a higher rate than for adult detainees, and their fate remains unknown.
During this transitional period, the international community should take several actions to address the issue of child soldiers in Afghanistan. First, they should engage with the Taliban as they seek to establish themselves as the government and raise the matter of child soldier recruitment. Ending such recruitment and releasing children from their ranks could serve as a confidence-building measure and demonstrate the Taliban's commitment to international norms.
Second, the U.N. Security Council should continue supporting the robust monitoring of child rights violations, including child recruitment in Taliban forces, by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). UNAMA has a history of investigating and verifying individual cases of child recruitment, providing valuable evidence for advocacy with relevant authorities.
Third, individual commanders responsible for child recruitment should be held accountable. Enlisting children under 18 in hostilities violates international law, and recruiting or using children under 15 is considered a war crime. The International Criminal Court's prosecutor's office has indicated its intent to investigate child recruitment in Afghanistan, and this effort should be supported. Prosecutions of individual commanders can send a powerful message, both in Afghanistan and worldwide, that child recruitment is unacceptable and carries severe consequences.
While the Taliban's record of human rights abuses is extensive and there are numerous challenges ahead, putting an end to the exploitation of children in armed conflict should be a fundamental condition in the anticipated negotiations between the Taliban and the international community.