The Taliban have begun using child suicide bombers in eastern Afghanistan, underscoring the increasingly brutal nature of the fighting in a volatile region that is emerging as the central front of the U.S.-led war.
In one of the deadliest such attacks, a 12-year-old boy wearing a suicide vest detonated himself in a crowded marketplace in Paktika province last month, killing four people, including a high-ranking local Afghan official, and wounding a dozen others.
In late May, Afghan security forces arrested a 9-year-old and two other boys as they attempted to cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan, according to an official in the Afghan Interior Ministry with direct knowledge of the incident who asked to remain anonymous. The three boys, all under the age of 14, admitted that they had been sent into the country to carry out suicide attacks, the official said. More than two dozen would-be child bombers are in Afghan custody, with most arrested in eastern Afghanistan, the official said.
The use of children as suicide bombers represents a new and dangerous evolution of the insurgent threat in Afghanistan, with militants taking advantage of the facts that young boys are easily impressionable and can be either persuaded to carry out such attacks voluntarily or forced to do so by threats to themselves or their families. In a similar shift, the Taliban and its allies have also begun employing women—who typically attract little scrutiny from security personnel—as suicide bombers. Earlier this month, for instance, a female suicide bomber triggered her explosives near a passing convoy in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, badly wounding three Afghan troops.
Maj. Gen. Dan Allyn, the top American commander in eastern Afghanistan, told National Journal the Taliban is using female and child suicide bombers to reverse recent American and Afghan gains in the region.
“We’re seeing a much more ruthless attack against the population of Afghanistan by the insurgent groups, including a willingness to use children and women as suicide bombers, which is new for Afghanistan,” Allyn, who runs NATO’s Regional Command-East, said in an interview. “It’s a sign of their fairly desperate attempts to hold on to their last strongholds and destabilize the areas around Kabul.”
Allyn, a Maine native, is responsible for a broad swath of Afghanistan, including hundreds of miles of the country’s porous border with Pakistan. The Taliban and its allies maintain an extensive network of safe havens inside Pakistan and routinely send Pakistan-based militants into Afghanistan to carry out new attacks. The ongoing insurgent infiltration from Pakistan is a major reason that U.S. and Afghan casualties in eastern Afghanistan are continuing to increase.
The raw numbers are striking. In the roughly four weeks since Allyn has been in command of RC-East, 16 coalition troops have lost their lives, including 11 Americans, and more than 200 have been wounded. U.S. officers estimate their forces killed roughly 185 militants and arrested 650 more over the same time period. As in other parts of the country, the main victims of the insurgent attacks have been Afghan civilians: Allyn said militants killed 50 civilians and wounded 137 others since May 19. NATO forces have wounded three civilians but have caused no deaths over the past month.
With the White House beginning a high-stakes debate about how many of the 30,000 surge troops to begin bringing home next month, Allyn—echoing other senior American military commanders—said coalition and Afghan forces were making progress in the grinding fight against the Taliban and their allies.
The general said that U.S. and Afghan forces were working to push militants out of their traditional strongholds in Logar and Wardak, key provinces that lie just south of Kabul, while stepping up efforts to interdict insurgents crossing into the country from Pakistan before the fighters can carry out their planned attacks.
Allyn said Afghan and American troops were working to expand the so-called “Kabul security zone,” which surrounds the Afghan capital, deeper into nearby provinces like Laghman and Nangarhar. Much of the area within the security zone—including Highway 1, the main road in and out of Kabul, and Highway 7, which connects Kabul and central Afghanistan with the Torkham border crossing—is already under full Afghan security control.
Still, Allyn cautioned that there was likely to be tough fighting in the months ahead. He said U.S. commanders continue to hold regular meetings with their Pakistani counterparts, but acknowledged that Pakistan has temporarily “scaled back” the synchronized operations that the two militaries had been conducting along their respective sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The commander also cautioned that the Taliban and its allies were continuing to try to infiltrate fighters in from Pakistan and to mount new attacks in and around Kabul. The summer fighting season in eastern Afghanistan is just beginning to heat up, and Allyn said he expects some hard days ahead as the armed group tries to reverse some of its recent battlefield losses.
“The enemy is trying very hard to hold on to what few footholds they still retain,” he said. “It’s a tough fight every day.”