Cradling a massive automatic rifle, his little head encased in an oversized helmet, Wasil Ahmad gazed into the camera with an air of seriousness and self-importance disturbing for a boy his age.
In an another photograph -- which also made the social media rounds last year -- the 10-year-old Afghan boy sported his signature combat fatigues. Only this time, he was bedecked with a giant plastic flowered garland hanging down to knees.
Completing the general disquieting effect is a posse of local Afghan policemen and elders milling around the boy. One photo even showed the deputy police chief of the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, Rahimullah Khan, congratulating Wasil.
The 10-year-old was being hailed as a local hero for resisting the Taliban in his native Uruzgan last summer.
Deputy Chief Khan and his men seemed clearly unaware that under Article 8 of the Rome Statute -- which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 to “participate actively in hostilities” constitutes a war crime.
But now the ultimate crime has been committed against little Wasil. On Monday, Taliban militants shot and killed the 10-year-old local celebrity in Tirin Kot, capital of Uruzgan. According to the New York Times, Wasil was killed when he stepped out of his house to buy vegetables. The Associated Press however said he was killed on his way to school.
The Taliban supplied just one version of Wasil’s death: he was killed by two shots for being “a stooge”.
How has the world wronged little Wasil? Let me count the ways...
‘A vipers’ nest of intertwined militias’
First, he was used to fight in an ALP (Afghan Local Police) unit against the Taliban last year.
Formed in 2010 with US and UK backing, the ALP is a local defense force under the Afghan Interior Ministry that was created to free the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) for offensive operations while ALP units could defend rural communities.
Yes, we’re getting into an alphabet soup of security acronyms, but it’s worth wading into the broth to understand what’s going on.
Ever since it was created, the ALP has been the subject of bad press and warnings by international rights groups.
In a 2011 report titled, “Just Don’t Call It a Militia,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that “the term ‘police’ in the ALP is a misnomer as the ALP is not really a police force.”
Barely a year after it was created, Human Rights Watch reported several cases of ALP abuses across the country, including the Shindad district in the western Afghan province of Herat, where the ALP had “a reputation for being a vipers’ nest of intertwined militias, criminal gangs and insurgents”.
Despite the warnings and documented abuse cases, the US Department of Defense (DOD) continues to fund the ALP program. An October 2015 report by SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) -- the US government’s leading oversight authority for Afghanistan – noted that, “DOD intends to continue funding the ALP program through at least September 2016, but plans for transitioning or dissolving the ALP remain undefined.”
In other words, we’re sowing the seeds of a classic post-combat disaster scenario where militias -- that have not been disarmed, disbanded or incorporated into the regular security forces – can, and will, run amok.
But then the security situation in Afghanistan today is dire. The Taliban has conducted a bloody winter offensive. Infighting between Taliban splinter groups following the acknowledgment of Mullah Omar’s death is on the rise. Battles break out between the Taliban and Wilayat Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Daesh, or ISIS and the effects of the Syrian conflict is being felt in Afghanistan with Iran recuriting Afghan Shiites to fight for President Bashar al-Assad.
So, once again, bandaid fixes trump long-term plans for securing Afghanistan’s future. If the ALP is blithely breaking international law and recruiting child combatants, so be it. After 15 years of securing Afghanistan and pouring billions of dollars on the country’s reconstruction, we can always shrug our shoulders and say guns are a way of life here and children get their hands on them anyway. It’s part of their culture.
Ignoring bacha bazi or sexual abuse
Which is exactly what US soldiers were told when they encountered rampant sexual abuse of boys by local Afghan security officials fighting the Taliban. The practice of bacha bazi -- literally “boy play” or more commonly known as “dancing boys” – is rife in post-Taliban Afghanistan. In a misogynist society, slender, invariably fair-skinned young boys are “adopted” by local security commanders and officials, taught to dance and routinely sexually abused.
It’s the worst kept secret in Afghanistan. US State Department human rights reports routinely mention the practice, and as the New York Times reported in September, US soldiers and Marines were instructed not to intervene – in some cases even when their Afghan allies abused boys on military bases – because “it’s their culture”.
Except that bacha bazi is as reviled as it is rampant across Afghanistan.
Ask any Afghan who is not a local strongman or patron/owner of a bacha – and I have asked many – about the practice and you get the same reply: it’s disgusting, criminal and deplorable.
Bacha bazi, they explain, flourished during the anarchic years after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal when mujahideen warlords fought each other in a deadly intercenine war.
When the Taliban seized power, the practice declined. Even Afghans who have no love for the Taliban admit that under the hardline Islamist group, bacha bazi dwindled since the practice was punishable by death and the Taliban were pretty good moral code enforcers.
Since the 2001 Taliban ouster though, bacha bazi has been on the rise. Every international I know who has attended an Afghan wedding with heavily made-up young boys dancing seductively mentions their disquiet.
And yet nothing is done about it.
‘We don’t want to make enemies in Afghanistan'
While violence against Afghan women and girls makes headlines and NGOs working on women’s rights get international funding, Afghanistan’s abused boys are left to roast.
In recent years, a number of Afghan journalists have gone through considerable risks to report this story, at the end of which, they all report the same experience: nothing gets done.
When photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor completed a project on Afghanistan’s dancing boys, he told the Washington Post he assumed NGOs would be eager to exhibit his work and raise awareness of the issue. But that didn’t happen. “They [the NGOs] said: ‘We don’t want to make enemies in Afghanistan,” he told the Post.
Prominent Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi risked his life to infiltrate the illicit sex trade for the PBS Frontline documentary, “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”. But when it came to trying to rescue one of his characters -- a dancing boy named Shafiq -- he had to rely on a dodgy former Northern Alliance commander who claimed his bacha bazi days were over. There was no choice.
In a Q&A posted online following the horrified responses to the documentary, Producer Jamie Doran discussed their dilemma: “we knew Shafiq was in imminent danger and consulted Western agencies and child welfare experts in Afghanistan for advice about how he could be rescued. But they turned out to be unable or even unwilling to help.”
As the US winds down its mission in Afghanistan, relying on “our allies” in the fight against the Taliban, young boys like Shafiq and Wasil are being increasingly abused -- whether sexually or being “encouraged” to fight on the battlefront.
None of this is legal in Afghanistan of course. But in a country where the government is having a tough time securing the territory let alone administering it, the writ of the law never reaches the marginalized -- unless they are lucky enough to fall into the ambit of an NGO capable of taking up their case. Afghanistan’s abused boys though don’t have that safety net.
In Wasil’s case, his uncle was a former Taliban commander who switched sides four years ago, according to the New York Times. His father had been killed by the Taliban. “Possibly he took up arms to take revenge for his father’s death,” Rafiullah Baidar, a spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told the Independent’s Bilal Sarwary. “But it was illegal for the police to declare him a hero and reveal his identity, especially to insurgents…One side made him famous and the other side killed him – both sides ignored the law and acted illegally.”