Afghanistan: Pity the children

Conflict, poverty, and flawed policies are killing Afghan children.

A wounded Afghan boy walks with an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier at the site of a suicide attack in Dehdadi, a district close to the provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif [Getty]
A wounded Afghan boy walks with an Afghan soldier at the site of a suicide attack in Mazar-i-Sharif [Getty]

On February 2, the Taliban proudly assumed responsibility for the assassination of Wasil Ahmad. The boy they had murdered, with two bullets to the head, was only 10 years old.

Wasil, a native of the south-central Uruzgan province of Afghanistan, had stopped at the bazaar on his way home from school to buy apples when he was shot.

While nothing justifies such a barbaric act, a host of elements contributed to rendering the fourth grader a target. Six months earlier, he had become a child soldier in the Afghan Local Police unit that was led by his uncle.

His father and a dozen of his clan members had been killed by the Taliban. When his uncle was severely injured, rage, vengeance or perhaps mere survival instinct had prompted little Wasil to join the ranks of the fighters.

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After the militia group successfully repelled the Taliban offensive, the district police chief lionised Wasil and celebrated his bravery. His photos was circulated in the social media.

Child combatants

In the absence of exact figures, reports on Afghan child combatants rely on anecdotes and witness accounts. On the government side, it is believed that the problem is especially pronounced in the government-sanctioned and US-funded ALP militia forces.

The phenomenon appears to be more widely present among terrorist organisations. Teenage students of religious madrasas, mostly in Pakistan, comprise the bulk of Taliban and Haqqani Network’s foot soldiers. Children are also used as suicide bombers.

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A greater number of children are used by both sides as cooks, servants and errand boys, positions that all international legal instruments against the use of children in combat include in their definition of “child soldier”.

It was during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s that children began to fall victim to war and its multidimensional miseries.


Conflict, poverty, flawed policies and the dismal application of the rule of law kill Afghan children in droves on a daily basis. Each year, hundreds of children die in armed hostilities, air strikes, suicide attacks, car bombs, or land mines.

It was during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s that children began to fall victim to war and its multidimensional miseries. The indiscriminate bombing of villages, disappearance of children from high schools for suspicion of ties with the resistance movement and forced conscriptions on both sides of the war were common.

It is generally believed that about 50,000 children, mostly orphans, were sent to the Soviet Union in the 1980s to be indoctrinated in Marxism.

The ordeals that Afghan children endured in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran during the Afghan-Soviet war are well documented in various human rights and humanitarian assistance organisations’ reports.


The mujahidin victory and their subsequent infighting from 1992 to 1996 lowered the bar further. Children had to join militias of various fighting factions, either forcefully or simply to earn a loaf of bread for their families.

Afghan boy walks as he looks for customers to buy his balloons on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif [Getty]
Afghan boy walks as he looks for customers to buy his balloons on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif [Getty]

The advent of the Taliban in the mid-1990s brought a host of new deprivations. Playing sports became prohibited. Girls could no longer attend school. Music was declared sinful.

The US intervention at the end of 2001 revived hope for a better future. The initial US promise of nation-building and a Marshall Plan-style of reconstruction meant that if an entire generation of Afghans had lost their childhood, the millennial generation would grow up in a better environment.

To be fair, there has been some improvement in the predicament of Afghan children. But 14 years of international presence and billions of dollars in aid should have yielded much better results.

Conflict in the past decade has caused about 28,000 civilian deaths and more than 100,000 injuries. Considering that nearly 70 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, this demographic has been affected significantly.

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Prospects for those who don’t die in conflict are not too promising, either.

About 100,000 are begging in the streets of Kabul alone, mostly forced to deliver their day's earnings to petty urban gangs.


Six million school-age children are engaged in labour. About 60,000 are begging in the streets of Kabul alone, mostly forced to deliver their day’s earnings to petty urban gangs. Abject poverty compels many parents to consent.

The government and international donors boast about eight million children being registered in schools. In fact, due to poverty and deteriorating security conditions, about 40 percent of primary school-aged children are not attending school.

Girls are forced into marriages, at times in their pre-teen years, in exchange for a bride price or to settle debts that the father is unable to pay otherwise. The recent phenomenon of “opium brides” involves farmers coerced to give their daughters to local drug barons.

There has been a surge of abductions and child trafficking since 2014. Afghans are convinced that the impunity enjoyed by kidnappers and traffickers is due to the involvement of influential individuals and security forces in this lucrative business.

Domestic servitude

Abducted children are used in forced labour or domestic servitude, either inside the country or in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. Some are recruited in terrorist organisations and others are sold for commercial sexual use. The practice of “bacha bazi” (boy play) has expanded exponentially with the rise of the new affluent elite.


Three decades of war have left Afghans as a nation physically and psychologically disabled. It is estimated that children comprise half of the handicapped population.

One in 10 children dies before reaching their fifth birthday; undernutrition is at 55 percent, resulting in a high number of stunted children.

For every 100,000 Afghans there exist 0.01 mental health specialists. Child psychiatric services are non-existent. In the absence of any psychological evaluation, much less treatment of children, one can only guess the extent of the damage.

But, against staggering odds, Afghan children continue to be hopeful. They still revel in an ice cream, wish for a bicycle and dream about becoming a doctor or a football player. They deserve a childhood.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.