x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Teenage Taliban resist reintegration into Afghan society

Captured young militants, placed into programmes by that Afghan government, backed by foreign interests, put up stiff resistance to attempts to make them rejoin society

Inmates at Kabul's juvenile detention centre study the Koran during a morning religious class. Officials are trying to rehabilitate young insurgents, but many of them resist the government's efforts. 'We'll fight against America for a thousand years if we have to,' said one. Kevin Sieff / The Washington Post
Inmates at Kabul's juvenile detention centre study the Koran during a morning religious class. Officials are trying to rehabilitate young insurgents, but many of them resist the government's efforts. 'We'll fight against America for a thousand years if we have to,' said one. Kevin Sieff / The Washington Post

KABUL // The teenage insurgents spend their days learning to make shoes and bookshelves, listening to religious leaders denounce the radical interpretation of Islam they learnt as children.

But when the boys return to their cells at Kabul's juvenile rehabilitation centres, with their wispy beards and cracking voices, they talk only of the holy war from which they were plucked and their plans to resume fighting for the Taliban.

"They bring us here to change us," said Nane Asha, in his late teens. "But this is our way. We cannot be changed."

As the Taliban presses its efforts to recruit young fighters, Afghan officials and their international backers have launched a programme to reintegrate the young insurgents into society.

But the teenagers say they would rather be on the battlefield.

"We'll fight against America for a thousand years if we have to," said Ali Ahmad, 17, sitting at a desk that has hearts and Quran verses scratched in the wood. "Jihad is the duty of every Muslim."

Before joining the insurgency the fighters were students, part-time shopkeepers and farmhands, mostly living in the Pashtun-dominated regions of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Some say their parents supported their decision to take up arms. Others left home without warning, disregarding the wishes of relatives and heeding what they call a religious and moral obligation.

At the detention centre they live alongside a large group of teenagers found guilty of crimes unrelated to terrorism.

Young Taliban members are often described as desperate rather than ideological, but the 30 teenage fighters in the centre appear undeterred and unrepentant, and they vow strict adherence to the group's creed.

"We tell them, 'You could be a mullah or a tailor or a carpenter'," said Shah Abbas Bashardost, who works with the boys. "But they come here with a misinterpretation of the holy Quran stuck in their mind. It can be hard to erase that.

"If we can't get through to the kids, who can we rehabilitate?"

Reintegration is at the heart of US and Afghan government strategies to wind down the war, with schooling and employment offered to coax fighters away from the insurgency.

Juvenile offenders seemed to be a sensible starting point because many assumed they would be easier to win over than adults who have spent years, or even decades, waging war.

In the next few years, reintegration programmes such as the one at the Kabul juvenile centre, which is run by Afghans but with foreign supporters, including the US, are expected to be introduced at prisons across the country.

But the disappointing results at the Kabul facility reflect the challenges facing the campaign.

The experience with boys such as Nane and Ali suggests that after years of religious schooling and combat, the draw of war might be too strong to overcome.

The Taliban visited Nane's school when he was about 13, preaching the evils of US interlopers and the value of violent jihad.

Nane approached the speaker after the sermon ended. "How can I join you?" he asked.

Within a few weeks he was enrolled in a six-month training course, learning how to fire a Kalashnikov and connect a nest of wires and explosives that could take out a US tank. He studied the material obsessively.

Then Nane put his new skills to work, scurrying across Helmand province to lay a variety of explosives in areas where foreign troops were likely to travel and watching from a distance as his handiwork sent plumes of smoke, dust and shrapnel into the air.

Sometimes, he said, he fired on the troops who emerged to tend to the wounded. Sometimes he got too close and pieces of hot metal punctured his skin, leaving scars.

Nane was rising through the Taliban ranks, accruing subordinates and ammunition, when Afghan police stopped him in Kandahar last year, recognising his face from a photo of suspects.

He told interrogators he was 16, even though he thinks he is older, because sentences are halved for juveniles.

Teenage insurgents, rather than serve time in conventional prisons, are sent to minimum-security rehabilitation facilities, which look more like secondary schools than jails. Afghan authorities have started taking bone scans of young inmates to ascertain their ages, knowing many lie.

In May, the country's intelligence agency paraded five boys aged between 11 and 17 in front of media in Kabul. The boys were among 400 juvenile fighters arrested by the agency in the past two years. Many more have died in battle.

On stage, the boys said they wanted to divorce themselves from religious extremists and return to their families. They seemed ripe for the kind of services offered by the rehabilitation programme.

But at the Kabul centre, detainees call Taliban members on borrowed mobile phones to reassure them their commitment to jihad has not weakened.

Taliban commanders promise to reward the boys for serving prison sentences, the detainees said.

* The Washington Post