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Claims of Taliban child soldiers, but analysis suggests only for propaganda purposes

Afghan Witness has been analysing posts on social media claiming the Taliban are using child soldiers. This is what we found...


27 May 2022

In recent weeks, there have been a number of posts from influential and credible Afghan social media accounts alleging that the Taliban has begun using child soldiers.

On May 13, two influential and verified accounts – Wali Arian, a journalist for Swedish Radio and Voice of America (VOA) Dari, and Bilal Sarwary, a former BBC correspondent – both posted an image of a group of children dressed in military attire and carrying weapons in the back of a Taliban vehicle, alongside suggestions that the Taliban were using child soldiers.

The tweets gained significant traction; Sarwary’s post was retweeted or quote tweeted 86 times and gained 259 likes, while Arian’s post was retweeted or quote tweeted 42 times and gained 377 likes.

Figure: Posts from two influential accounts: Wali Arian and Bilal Sarwary, sharing the image of alleged child soldiers

It was notable that neither of the posts nor other users who reposted the image provided any context or a location, leading Afghan Witness (AW) to suspect the images were not new. While there are limited clues in the pictures to allow for geolocation, AW was able to find additional images of the same group of boys, apparently from a parade in Baghlan province on February 19, when other social media users had also remarked on the Taliban’s use of child soldiers. The images can be geolocated to Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan province.

Figure: Additional images of the group of boys (top) can be geolocated to Pul-e-Khumri, Baghlan (image below showing roundabout and pylon for comparison)

In the following days, numerous other accounts shared the images, triggering a wave of material from anti-Taliban campaigners and Afghan media claiming to show the Taliban’s use of child soldiers.

A video posted by Aamaj News’ Persian account on May 14, accompanied by the text “Video – Taliban checkpoint in Kabul” showed a young boy apparently participating in a Taliban checkpoint. It appears Aamaj were seeking to follow the rising agenda of Taliban child soldiers, but the video can be found back in September 2021, along with a post claiming the footage was from September 25 in Kabul. While the video does indeed show a boy at a checkpoint, from what can be seen it appears to be more for entertainment purposes than a real indication of the Taliban’s use of child soldiers.

Figure: Aamaj News post on May 14 (left) using a video found in September 2021 (right)

One widely-shared image circulated on May 15 showed Sirajuddin Haqqani, Acting Minister of Interior, with a young boy dressed as a Badri 313 fighter. Accounts posting the image included Afghanistan Fact Checks, a platform that positions itself as a fact-checking service but often shares apparent anti-Taliban misinformation.

Their post, which referred to Haqqani as “Interior Minister and Chief of Suicide”, received 26 retweets, 16 quote tweets and 50 likes. Pro-Taliban accounts also posted the image, apparently seeing no issue with the depiction of a child in military gear.

Figure: Examples of posts sharing the image of Siraj Haqqani with a young boy dressed as a Badri 313 soldier

The boy appearing alongside Haqqani has featured in Taliban communications on several occasions dressed as a Badri 313 soldier. A number of images and videos circulated in November and early December 2021, often accredited to a popular pro-Taliban account. These were reposted by Mohammed Naeem, spokesperson for the Taliban’s Political Office, and featured on the quasi-official Badri 313 Army accounts, where a video featuring a collage of images set to music was also posted.

Figure: Posts from Taliban accounts in November and early December depicting the boy alongside Haqqani.

The Taliban and the Badri 313 account mentioned above have not been shy in using children dressed in military gear in their communications. Since its first post in early September 2021, the Badri313 account has frequently featured images of young children in military uniform.

A post in March did appear to imply children were in training, with one photo showing a child in a parade line and a second showing two patrolling in mountains alongside the text: “Equip your children with Islamic and national spirit so that the next generation will be free and independent”.

Figure: Examples of posts from the Badri313 account showing multiple children in military dress

Analysis of the material that has been posted on social media indicates that the Taliban depict children as soldiers in their communications, usually in the context of ‘the next generation’ or promoting the concept of a multi-generational struggle for an Islamic state. This is a theme that can be seen in the communications of other militant Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, among others.

However, with regards to the specific allegation of the Taliban’s use of child soldiers - as pushed on social media in recent weeks - there is currently no evidence to suggest the Taliban’s child soldiers are for anything more than their media campaigns, with no material suggesting the operational deployment of child soldiers.

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