Recently, Lt. Col. Michael Manning, stationed in Helmand province, argued the Taliban is difficult to defeat in part because Afghans care "so little for human life." Indeed it is a sad fact of life that Afghan children are recruited and even forced by the Taliban to help in the fight against what most Afghans consider to be a foreign occupation. But while the contradictions inherent in Western war propaganda are copious and convoluted, few are as cynical as the perennial charge that the cultures we mangle with our wars don’t care about lives they have never really been allowed to have.
It’s hard to doubt that many children are employed in war in a country under siege by the world’s largest and most powerful militaries. After all, Afghanistan’s economy is nearly nonexistent — GDP is a mere $26 billion, hardly $100 a head. Its cities have been destroyed several times over the last 30 years. Kids scavenge and hock wares in the street in order to care for even younger family members. All this after 10 years of intervention and hundreds of billions of dollars having been hurled at it by Western governments. Afghanistan has seen little actual market-driven investment because, in the real world outside the Keynesian delusion, war is terrible for business if you’re not in the business of war. Which is all that remains for much of Afghanistan’s population, youth included.
The Taliban themselves are the children of previous conflicts with a foreign power, the Soviets. They don’t know any other way to live, thanks to successive, back-to-back invasions and interventions. The Taliban is not an organization, it’s an ideology: one forged in war, encouraged by the horror of bombings and blockades and lapdog governments who have everything but the good of the common people in mind.
Yet those in charge of the current project in Afghanistan act as if history began yesterday, with the Afghans a pugnacious people who love nothing more than to use their own children as human shields. Presumably, these children are victims just up until the US can catch them, at which point the US is somehow justified in abusing, torturing, imprisoning at length, and show-trialing them. This is exactly what happened with Canadian-born Omar Khadr. The wounded 15-year-old was accused of throwing a grenade at an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002. He was held in limbo for the next eight years in America’s own legal black hole, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been tortured and forced into false confessions which are to be used against him in military court. Khadr is understood to have himself been pressed into the fight by his own father — although as Afghanistan is a total war zone, war may be impossible for many to avoid anyhow.
"They don’t value life" — colonialists of all nationalities, since before the Romans, have said something similar to justify their very own disregard for life. Maybe bombing the natives’ families will teach them this value? One can almost hear some gruff Marine actually saying this. It’s the height of hypocrisy to dismissively downplay the Taliban’s tactics with such language when almost no other culture could have emerged from such a hideous recent history, one created in good part by the country which stands in judgment.
The US is not only guilty of using child soldiers itself — you can, after all, join the military at 17, and those not considered old enough to drink can nonetheless die in war — it is also guilty of torturing the enemy’s child soldiers once it captures them. At a time when US drones are vaporizing civilians, including children, across the Hindu Kush nearly every day, it’s difficult to believe America has much moral authority on the matter of the value of life.