Aug. 5, 2016: This article has been corrected.
This article was co-published with Foreign Policy magazine.
Investigators for the United Nations found 48 child soldiers in Afghanistan last year, with more than one-fourth working for government-backed forces such as the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Local and National Police. But that news somehow never made an impact in Washington.
In an annual report released on June 30 that names 10 foreign countries known to use and recruit child soldiers, the State Department didn’t include Afghanistan — a country with forces labeled as “persistent perpetrators” by the United Nations in a report issued just two months earlier.
The discrepancy is partly a matter of legal interpretation but mostly one mired in international politics, it turns out.
Countries that employ child soldiers in their armed forces are barred from receiving specific types of U.S. military assistance or weapons, under a U.S. law enacted in 2008. But the Obama administration says Afghanistan is not subject to the law because its Local Police force — which uses child soldiers, and experts say operates like a militia or a paramilitary group — is not part of the armed forces.
This claim has allowed the U.S. Defense Department to give the Afghan Local Police a total of $470 million as of April 2015, according to a tally made by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. But nonprofit groups and independent experts on Afghanistan and the use of children in armed conflicts say the administration has misinterpreted the U.S. law or abused some ambiguities in its text.
“Not including Afghanistan sends out the message that children who have been recruited by police forces deserve less protection,” said Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow at the independent London-based institute Chatham House, who has worked extensively on the issue of child soldiers. “More children are likely to be recruited and used by militias than the military themselves.”
Even if the decision is not a violation of the law, it constitutes a breach of the “spirit of the law,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch in New York.
The law states that certain types of military assistance and armaments cannot flow to countries with “government-supported armed groups” that use child soldiers. It also makes clear that these groups include “paramilitaries, militias [and] civil defense forces.” The law does not explicitly mention police, however. Child soldiers are defined as those under the age of 18 who are recruited by such groups to work as soldiers or perform other tasks, including working as cooks or porters.