Standing at a security checkpoint dressed in a battered combat jacket and leaking boots, Zaralam said he had joined the "army" because he had to earn some money for his family. "It's tough working day and night, but I earn 2,000 afghanis [US $40] a month and get some food too," the 14-year old military policeman told IRIN in the Daman district of the southern city of Kandahar.
Zaralam is one of thousands of children in Afghanistan who, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), gain an income or other material support as members of armed groups. A field assessment conducted by UNICEF earlier this year throughout Afghanistan indicated that there were at least 8,000 children currently under arms. Many remain in the pay of regional warlords, who still dominate Afghan life outside the capital, Kabul.
The ousted Taliban, the US-backed Northern Alliance (NA) and other armed factions have all been accused of using child soldiers as young as 14, according to rights groups. The reasons are obvious: children are cheaper to employ, slow to question authority and often quick to prove themselves in Afghanistan's gun-dominated macho society. Some are lured into armed factions by promises of education and proper jobs. Most are carrying guns simply for lack of any viable alternative.
These children, mainly boys but some girls too, are part of an estimated 100,000 combatants who need to be found alternative livelihoods if peace is to stand a chance in volatile Afghanistan. The country's UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, that began at pilot level in October this year, is designed to help significantly reduce the strength of the myriad armed factions.
Six pilot projects are currently underway before the main phase early next summer. "Six thousand people will be disarmed in the pilot projects in six provinces including Konduz, Gardez, Mazar-e Sharif, Parvan (Kabul), Kandahar and Bamyan provinces," Paul Cruick, an operations manager with the Afghanistan New Beginning Programme (ANBP), NGO said.
The DDR process is voluntary and the ANBP will be providing an incentive package to enable those disarmed to support their families during the transitional phase until they have found alternative means. "The ex-combatant receives a compensation/severance package including US $200 cash and a clothing and food package [130 kg of different types of food]," Cruick said, adding that this was merely to ensure that the transition was easier and simpler. "This is not a cash for weapons programme," he stressed.
Some observers say the DDR process, if it takes off, will significantly reduce the number of children under arms.
But the UN, aid agencies and the Afghan government want a more specific framework for the demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers to meet their special needs. "There is still from time to time recruitment by some factions that also includes children; this is one problem that I think we all have to help the government of Afghanistan to deal with," Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Special Envoy for Afghanistan, said recently.
"UNICEF's role within the general DDR programme is to focus on the special needs of children," Edward Carwardine, a UNICEF spokesman, told IRIN in Kabul. According to the UN agency, the child soldier initiative is not part of the DDR programme, "Obviously, UNICEF is working closely with partners in UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] to ensure that the child soldier programme sits comfortably alongside the more general DDR process," Carwardine stated.
Most children currently under arms in Afghanistan have become used to the lifestyle. Many know no other, and ending the relationship of dependency between child and faction leader or paymaster will be very difficult, observers say. "One of the biggest challenges is to find a way of adequately replacing those factors through a rehabilitation programme," Carwardine remarked, noting that new skills-based training programmes needed to be developed and that support for literacy, and numeracy and other life skills was required, especially for children who had missed out on formal education.
But depriving young people of the only living they know, observers say, will not be easy. According to the ministry of labour and social affairs, the poor economic situation has transformed most children bearing arms into the primary financial supporters of their families, and unless there are viable alternatives they will have no choice but to remain combatants.
"There are over 2 million child-headed households and widows struggling to earn a daily livelihood," Ghaus Rashid, the deputy minister of labour and social affairs, told IRIN, noting that over 60 percent of young Afghans were jobless with no viable future and had no option but to join or remain members of armed groups if they were paid.
Some progress is being made. In May this year, Kabul outlawed the recruitment and use of child soldiers in the new Afghan National Army. Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali told IRIN recently that police reform, currently in progress, would also result in young people under 17 being weeded out of the new force. Law and order in Kabul, for example, is currently enforced by former combatants from the victorious NA, who swept the Taliban from power with US support almost two years ago.
Driving round the capital it is evident that many law enforcers are little more than boys in adult uniforms. "I came to Kabul when my brothers removed the Taliban. Before I was in a camp, but now I'm a policeman and proud," Ahmad, a 13-year-old ethnic Tajik boy, told IRIN while leaning on a rusting Kalashnikov nonchalantly directing traffic at one the city's busier roundabouts.
UNICEF is currently supporting the establishment of a number of projects throughout Afghanistan, which will assist the reintegration of child soldiers, along with other young people who have been affected by conflict. The projects include helping former child soldiers enrol in school, informal education including life skills and vocational training, and psychosocial support. Some material assistance to enable older children to learn new skills to better prepare themselves for a constructive role in society is also being offered.
These programmes, delivered through partner agencies such as Save the Children, require long-term donor commitment if they are to have any impact of on the large number of children forced to be soldiers in Afghanistan. "Sure I want to do something else, something like a teacher or even a doctor, but right now this is all I have," Zaralam said, pointing to his weapon.