Child soldiers and the rehab challenge

Published: July 4, 2010

One of the horrific practices the Taliban have adopted is to manipulate children.

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.


Muhammad 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 necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • khurram

    very nicely writtenRecommend

  • Aasia Ali

    Salute to Pakistan’s military who has successfully driven Taliban militants out from Swat but it is just a beginning of our fight against taliban. Still alot more missions, alot more areas to be cleared from such dumbheads.

    I think more of psychologists should participate in activities where we can help those children who fell prey & we should highlight the names of such persons who are devoting their services for this noble cause.

    Very informative piece of writing, should publish on these subjects more often.Recommend

  • shahb

    Terrorism or fundamentalism both factors must be taged with pakistan as a bolt from the blue in the sight of entire world,though various countries have been facing this curse and victimised but no one point out them,Why pakistan is the only one to be focused of western as well as Foreign media due to our irresponsible Govt or non-serious policy makers and what to say the fake degrees “parlimanterians” we’ve to findout the solution to eradicate the so-called Religious Groups untill to save our naive & innocent children.Recommend

  • nazzia

    it is good to see someone finally talking about the young boys that have been lured/forced into submission by the taliban to become their foot’s about time we realized that in order to curb the taliban menace on a permanent basis wud not be possible if these young men are not shielded in every possible way from the extremist ideaologiesRecommend

  • Fazal sher

    The government should launch rehabilitation program like Sabaoon for the rehabilitation of whole young generation of war hit areas and initiate a program to provide them skilled development education. For effective rehabilitation and provision of skill development to youth as well as students of religious seminaries, government need to take on board people from different walks of life including Ulemas, Non Government Organization (NGOs), political leaders and other influential of the war hit areas.Recommend

  • Marium

    Military alone cannot fight this growing ideology, support from the government is essential to ensure the success of this operation. what the army did was to give change a start , yet if the government does not follow through with development projects for this area, i am afraid that this change will not last.

    its a well written piece, augment it with the responsibility or way forward for the government to nip the taliban ideology.Recommend

  • Zahid

    Our army is the best in the world.Recommend

  • Amna Zaman

    Would agree with the above comment of Sadia. We must praise and support the Pak army for driving out militants from their strong holds. Child recruitment of terrorist is big issue and must be controlled. Nice article.Recommend

  • Waqar

    Now that is a good step even better than the WAR.
    I think all the people of Pakistan including religious parties and civil society should support and engage such rehabilitation. After all this country is our home. we should not only do the rehab but also give them technical education, sports activities and provide them jobs.

    Once you open the door of life on the disappointed and misguided children they will not allow others to close it.

    Helping Hands are Better than Praying Lips.Recommend

  • Rabeea

    wow.. this is some amazing stuff.. and m glad to see atleast someone cares about the many young boys who ve been has done its job in the most incredible way but now the responsibility lies on the shoulders of muslim scholars and government which alas don’t seem to realize it..Recommend

  • Rashid Saleem

    Indeed, the way forward should be designed on policies of rehabilitating the affected not only logistically and fiscally but intellectually as well. The seed of extremism must be taken out of them before they can embrace life completely again.Recommend

  • Sadia Hussain

    The dilemma of child soldier lingers on for life; one can never imagine the nightmares they go through. The process of rehabilitation is not easy as many of these children suffer from vitcim’s guilt. It is vital to engage them in the process of socialization and in countries like Uganda where these children were rehabilitated to serve as community reporters. The state and civil society needs to work together bring back the lost innocenceRecommend

  • Ammar

    The case of child soldiers is perturbing. The children were dragged into this conflict and used as human shields. The children have seen atrocities which even an adult would not want to witness. Their rehab is a challenge and for this we need to work on how they can be made part of our society where they can live without the fear of being judged for the crimes they did not commit.Recommend

  • Zainab Ali

    This effort from the army is worth appreciation from all circles; but I still doubt the legitimacy of those politicians cum religious scholars, who are still reluctant to denounce “Armed Jihad” and are actually promoting it.Recommend

  • Jahanzaib Haque

    “What did the Pakistani army do differently? It stopped trying to buy peace with the Taliban through deals that inevitably collapsed.”

    You and Imran Khan should never dine together.

    Enjoyed the post.Recommend

  • ali hamdani

    Interesting article here. Child soldiers is a big issue in our country and their rehab is a big challenge. We must secure these children from maniacs such as Taliban who use them for personal gains.Recommend

  • Muhammad Rehan Zafar

    The sacrifices of Pakistan’s armerd forces as well as general population in this long war are indeed tremendous. The Swat operation should also serve as a guideline for our “allies” as well. This fact must be understood that Low Intensity Conflicts can not be won without popular support and avoiding massive civilian casualities. Moreover, the gap in the competance level of our civilian and military leadership also needs to be reduced so that the entire nation can have one voice.
    As far as the Jihadist ideologies and people promoting them are concerned, the fact must be understood that these people are merely serving their vested interests which are not connected with the prevailing system. As long as equal opportunities are not provided to poor who have no choice but to send their children to madrassas, these extreamist ideologies can never be eliminated.Recommend

  • Hira Mir

    Sabaoon rehabilitation needs to be replicated to secure these children future but it should also be done for elders. Lets not tourture these terrorist and watch them die. We should try to rehab them and bring them to the right path.Recommend

  • Shoeb Lodhi

    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.”Recommend

  • Gayle Figgins

    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!Recommend