ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. Staff Sergeant Aaron Best made no apologies as his soldiers escorted 14-year-old Ahmad, blindfolded and handcuffed, onto their outpost in southern Afghanistan for questioning.
“Don’t be fooled,” said Best, “I have detained so many teenagers. These fighters are getting younger and younger.”
Ahmad, whose real name has been concealed to protect his identity, was picked up by a U.S. patrol along with a 15-year-old boy in Arghandab, in southern Kandahar province, one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions, because they were behaving suspiciously.
Ahmad and his friend were hiding in vegetation, observing the soldiers, when they were spotted. The boys scurried away and when Best’s men finally caught up to them they tried to resist arrest, making the soldiers even more suspicious.
Both boys, along with several older detainees picked up on the patrol, tested positive for traces of ammonium nitrate on their hands, a chemical found in gunpowder and explosives. Ammonium nitrate is also found in certain fertilizers and, although they are banned in Afghanistan because they can be used to make homemade bombs, they are still used by some farmers. The detainees could simply have been farm laborers.
Ahmad and the others were kept overnight for questioning by Afghan police and released the next day to village elders who said they would vouch for them.
Whether or not Ahmad and his 15-year-old friend had been laying homemade bombs or had even fired weapons at U.S. troops before, Best’s men will probably never find out, but the arrests illustrate a worrying trend reported from soldiers on the ground: that they are encountering an increasingly younger fighter.
“Over the last eight to nine years there has been a dynamic change in the age of fighters. Most fighters now are between 14 and 18 years-old,” said Lieutenant Colonel Guy Jones, commander of 2-508th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, based in Arghandab.
“In 2002, fighters were 22 to 30-years-old and commanders were between 32 and 40,” said Jones who is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan.
Jones pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket to illustrate his point. On the paper are the names of recently captured detainees with their photographs beside them. Their ages range from 14 to 20.
One wounded boy caught firing a weapon at U.S. forces is now recovering in hospital at the main foreign air base in Kandahar. He is only 13, said Jones.
Jones said the young fighters were being coerced into joining the insurgency.
“These kids are looking at their elders and grandfathers as the great mujahideen, with respect, and they want to emulate them,” said Jones, referring to the men who fought against the Soviet occupation during the 1980s.
“The Taliban are pressuring young fighters to fight like their grandfathers and telling them: ‘Hey, be like them.’”
Whatever the reasons, it makes Best and his men wary of nearly everyone they meet on their patrol, and Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world.
Each time the soldiers patrol out of their outpost in Arghandab, a white kite is hoisted up from a nearby village.
The soldiers know they have Taliban “spotters” around the area and that these are most likely children, but when they have challenged the kite fliers they claim ignorance. For the soldiers it has happened too many time to be a coincidence.
This time Staff Sergeant Best agreed with the Afghan police to let the detainees go, saying it could help build up a rapport with the community, but the platoon commander’s frustration was palpable.
“At the end of the day we don’t have enough evidence on them and keeping them in for another two days will only turn the village against us,” he said.
“It’s like you really have to catch them putting the bomb in or firing a gun at us for something to happen.”
Editing by David Fox and Alex Richardson