Child soldiers and the rehab challenge

Zeeshan Khan July 04, 2010
Pakistan is a land of very diversified and emotional people, whose emotionalism ranges at high levels in all directions. Whether it is a cricket match or an invasion on a Muslim land, our emotions have acted as our guides rather than our intellect. This is what the Taliban exploit to gather public attention. They manipulate ‘religious emotions’ and create a spin in the public. It does not end here. One of the horrific practices the Taliban have adopted is to manipulate children from the age group of 14 – 20. They are trained to be suicide bombers. It is a documented fact that most suicide bombers have been from the mentioned age group.

The pictures of Pakistan’s battlefield against the Taliban leave one with unforgettable images. One image could be of a teenage boy's glowing smile of liberation that conveys what a successful counter-insurgency campaign is all about. When Pakistani troop’s regained control of Taliban hit areas in Swat and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in a violent campaign, they found scores of traumatized teenagers who had been forced to work as boy soldiers. Were they abducted from their homes to do this? Were they bought from their parents for little cash? Or did they do it with their own will? Little was known at that time.

The most admirable thing the army did at that time was that it decided to give these kids a chance to have a normal life just like others kids. For this, the army opened a rehabilitation clinic for them. It is called "Sabaoon," which is Pashto for the first ray of light in the morning. This project was spear-headed by Dr Mohammad Farooq who is a prominent religious scholar and a psychologist by profession. His appointment as the head of this project seems to be very rational as he has hands on experience of understanding the psychological needs of a person and his added inclination towards a moderate form of Islam gives him an edge in engaging the victims in a rational debate over the much controversial topic of Jihad.

I haven’t had a chance to see the facility myself but I did have a chance to hear the thoughts of Dr Mohammad Farooq about his experience in trying to rehabilitate these kids. He mentioned that when he first met these kids, many of the boys were still shaken by their experience. Here you must understand that someone who was training to be a suicide bomber had in a way accepted to end his life in a certain fashion. Injecting the element of ‘survival’ in this person demanded considerable effort and hours of sitting with him and talking about the possibilities for him going back home. This rehab centre currently has 85 potential suicide bombers belonging to the age group from 13 to 19, mainly hailing from poor families with no male family heads.

A very interesting point to note here which also highlights the hypocrisy of the Taliban is that they preached a wrong version of Islam to these, a version which suited their vision more than anyone else. Jihad was presented to them as a dire responsibility. In actual ‘Jihad’ that is armed Jihad is only allowed under very strict conditions. Islam explains jihad as a personal inner struggle rather than armed jihad.

How did the Taliban gather the initial support they had from this region? This questions still lingers in many minds. To answer this, you must see the question in multiple dimensions. Financial hopelessness, inadequate living standards and tarnished hopes are some of the reasons for this. When a man is disappointed with his life and feels purposeless, he loses the will to live and struggle. This is what the Taliban exploited and made them think that they couldn’t get comfort in this life while much luxury awaited them if they killed themselves in the name of God. Another important point here is that the Taliban targeted young, untrained and fragile minds for these evil purposes. Why? Because it generates less reaction and is children are easy to manipulate. The Pakistan army needs to be applauded here for the fact that rather than subjecting these kids to criminal activities, it made an attempt to revive the spirit of life in these young minds.

The Swat campaign by the Pakistan army clearly demonstrates how we finally got it right after years of mishandling the Taliban issue.  Listening to the local people, one can easily judge that the army has considerable public support there. There was a time when these roads were a no-go zone. Now they are teeming with merchants and shoppers. Some women are out in public without the ‘Burqas’ that the Taliban demanded. The only Kalashnikovs one can see now are on billboards advertising a laundry soap that bears the name.

What did the Pakistani army do differently? It stopped trying to buy peace with the Taliban through deals that inevitably collapsed. This insurgency was spreading out of Swat towards the capital of Islamabad and the army finally decided to crack down, for real.

But what are the factors which led this campaign to success. First, the army sent enough troops to do the job. Play fire with more fire. Army had to go all guns blazing to control this insurgency. Contrary to popular belief, Taliban are trained fighters. Second, to allow the use of heavy firepower, soldiers moved civilians out, creating more than two million temporary refugees, most of which have now returned. Third, the army had popular support from Pakistanis fed up with the Taliban.

I strongly believe that the operation by Pakistan army will serve as a guide for future insurgencies around the globe.  The "population-centric" strategy adopted by the armed forces of Pakistan should serve as the doctrine to fight insurgency around the globe. Yes the Pakistani armed forces fired and fired like anything but they fired upon the enemy. They gathered immense local support and these are the reasons they became their heroes.

The whole operation of the Pakistan army revolved around the philosophy that the war may happen once but to control future outgrowths of it, it is crucial to curb the very ideology which created it. You set an example for other people. That’s how you make them refute the ideology which led them to this chaos. If in future, the world tries to find a model to fight insurgency, then they must look at the way Pakistan Army and Pakistanis grouped together and marched their way toward victory against radical elements. That teenage boy with the shining smile would’ve been dead now if the army hadn't intervened. He still smiles because someone picked up the gun not to kill him but to kill those who threatened his smile.
Zeeshan Khan Zeeshan is a development practitioner and policy researcher based in Islamabad.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Gayle Figgins | 13 years ago | Reply Pretty great blog. I just stumbled upon your web-site and wanted to point out that I've definitely liked reading your web site articles. I'll be subscribing to your rss and I hope you publish another post again soon!
Shoeb Lodhi | 13 years ago | Reply Very nice article - I am with Pakistan Army. "He still smiles because someone picked up the gun not to kill him but to kill those who threatened his smile."
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