In Afghanistan’s increasingly brutal war, children are fighting on both sides. We’re calling on the Afghan government, and the US government – which provides substantial military aid to the country – to do more to end the use of child soldiers. In late 2015, our researchers met some of the Afghan children risking life and limb on the front lines.

As well as accounting for almost a third of civilian casualties in the first half of 2016, children have been recruited by the security forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations, and by the Taliban and other armed groups to plant bombs, and even carry out ‘suicide’ attacks.

These photos tell some of their stories. We can’t reveal these children’s names or faces, as it could further jeopardise their already precarious safety. They’re just some of those being exploited for military, and sometimes other purposes.

This 15-year-old boy had been working at an ALP checkpoint in Nangarhar province for five months when we interviewed him. Serving with the ALP in a highly insecure area, he risked being exposed to violence on a daily basis. He is illiterate, common in a country where access to education is limited and other opportunities are few. Once a week he was allowed to visit home.

According to the UN’s annual children and armed conflict report, the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP), the Taliban and other armed groups have used child soldiers for more than five years.

The ALP is an armed militia, established under the supervision of the US military in areas where the regular army’s presence is limited. Seen as a first line of defence against the Taliban, they are poorly trained, poorly paid and poorly supported. Along with the ANP, they often suffer heavy casualties.

In addition to fighting, children often fill other roles in military posts, such as working as cooks or preparing refreshments for commanders. There have also been reports of sexual abuse by Afghan police commanders under a practice called Bacha Bazi (literally ‘boy play’), whereby men keep young boys with them to perform menial tasks, and also rape them with impunity.

Another boy aged 15 years who was serving with the ALP in Nangarhar province. He had been with the ALP for eight months and his older brother had been killed serving in the ANP. After he finished grade six at school (typically finishing at age 12), his father passed away. Being the oldest remaining son and the only breadwinner in the family, he felt obliged to join ALP to generate an income and provide for his siblings.

The US, among other countries, provides substantial military aid to Afghanistan, and has failed to use its own laws to do more to end the use of children by the Afghan security forces.

The US Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) should be fairly straightforward: it bans the US from providing military assistance to governments that use children in combat. However, the US has not listed Afghanistan under the CSPA, arguing that the police are not a formal part of Afghanistan’s armed forces, despite their role in the conflict.

The detention and abuse of children suspected of involvement with the Taliban is also a major concern. Rather than being protected, such children are often treated harshly, and the UN has documented numerous cases of children being tortured in detention.

A 17-year-old awaiting trial in a juvenile rehabilitation centre in Kunar province, held under suspicion of being involved with the Taliban. He had denied all charges.

A boy from Paktia province held in a juvenile rehabilitation centre in Kunar province. He is 14 years old. He was arrested while on his way to attend a Madrasa (religious school). The authorities believed that the school was run by a Taliban commander, and that the boy was being prepared to carry out a ‘suicide’ attack.

Teenage boys in a juvenile rehabilitation centre in Kunar province. The boy on the right is 15 years old and was believed to be attending a Madrasa run by a Taliban commander. The boy on the left is 12 years old - he was arrested on suspicion of photocopying a booklet on Islamic teachings for the Taliban. Both were awaiting a court hearing.

We refuse to stand by and let this exploitation continue. We call on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to immediately release all children from their ranks, put in place adequate measures to prevent future child recruitment, and to stop the practice of Bacha Bazi – now.

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All photos: © Kiana Hayeri/Child Soldiers International