Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fight Against Child Soldiers in Afghanistan Critical to Mission's Success

Camp Okutta campaign underscores critical Afghan issue

“Camp Okutta does not exist.”

“But camps like it exist all over the world.”

This is the tagline for War Child Canada’s newest campaign to raise awareness for the critically important issue of child soldiers.

Using several striking ads as well as the Camp Okutta website, War Child is using this brilliantly-conceived viral ad campaign to attract attention to the issue of child soldiers around the world.

The child soldier issue also has implications for Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan.

In late 2004, UNICEF reported they had demobilized up to 4,000 of Afghanistan’s 8,000 known child soldiers. UNICEF and several other organizations continue to work in Afghanistan helping former child soldiers through education and therapy.

The Taliban has been known to use children as recently as April 2007, when a child was used to behead a suspected traitor.

“Part of the Taliban's strategy is to make Afghan civilians afraid and their attempts to show that everybody is unified against the occupation of Afghanistan as they call it,” says Human Rights Watch commentator John Sifton. “They may have decided that it would be intelligent to use children to somehow show a kind of solidarity with the Afghan people.”

The use of child soldiers in Afghanistan, by both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, has a long history, basically spanning at least the last 30 years of the country’s civil conflict.

While reports of Taliban use of child soldiers (whether as front-line fighters, executioners or merely as indentured support staff) continue, it has been suggested that the participation of NATO troops in the training of the Afghan National Army has prevented the recruitment of child soldiers into its ranks. In 2003, Afghan president Hammad Karzai issued a presidential decree forbidding the recruitment of anyone 22 years old or younger into the ANA.

It should, however, be noted that the Northern Alliance – a group integrated within the current government – has used child soldiers before, sometimes as young as 11 years old. “Our cause is so great that even our children want to join us in fighting the enemy,” one Northern Alliance commander is noted to have once claimed.

Clearly, if Canadian efforts to help demobilize Afghanistan’s child soldiers and keep them demobilized are to be successful, we’ll have to ensure the Afghan government doesn’t regress in its policies regarding recruitment.

One of the most important, factors involved, however, will be the ever-present fight against Afghan poverty. As of 2007, Afghanistan remains the seventh poorest country in the world.

Economic hardship drives children out of schools and into the work force, and military work tends to be most abundant in a war zone like Afghanistan. Pairing micro-economic foreign aid programs with a push toward attracting private sector business into Afghanistan will go a long way toward ensuring Afghan families don’t feel the need to send their children to war.

But it isn’t only Afghan children who have been recruited to the Afghan battlefield as child soldiers. Consider that Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen was only 15 years old when he was arrested while fighting in Afghanistan.

He’s currently being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Cutting off the supply of child soldiers can also go a long way toward defeating the Taliban, making it harder for them to replace their lost fighters on the battlefield. To that end, perhaps the search for – and subsequent demobilization of – child soldiers needs to continue on Canadian soil as well as in Afghanistan.

Whatever the future nature of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan – be it a combat mission or otherwise -- helping to demobilize and rehabilitate child soldiers will be a key factor toward ensuring a successful disengagement.

Even beyond that, it’s just the right thing to do.

Camp Okutta doesn’t exist. Canada needs to ensure camps like it don’t exist in Afghanistan.

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