“Don’t be fooled,” said Best, “I have detained so many teenagers. These fighters are getting younger and younger.”
Ahmad, whose real name has been concealed to protect his identity, was picked up by a U.S. patrol along with a 15-year-old boy in Arghandab, in southern Kandahar province, one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions, because they were behaving suspiciously.
Ahmad and his friend were hiding in vegetation, observing the soldiers, when they were spotted. The boys scurried away and when Best’s men finally caught up to them they tried to resist arrest, making the soldiers even more suspicious.
Both boys, along with several older detainees picked up on the patrol, tested positive for traces of ammonium nitrate on their hands, a chemical found in gunpowder and explosives. Ammonium nitrate is also found in certain fertilizers and, although they are banned in Afghanistan because they can be used to make homemade bombs, they are still used by some farmers. The detainees could simply have been farm laborers.
Ahmad and the others were kept overnight for questioning by Afghan police and released the next day to village elders who said they would vouch for them.
Whether or not Ahmad and his 15-year-old friend had been laying homemade bombs or had even fired weapons at U.S. troops before, Best’s men will probably never find out, but the arrests illustrate a worrying trend reported from soldiers on the ground: that they are encountering an increasingly younger fighter.
“Over the last eight to nine years there has been a dynamic change in the age of fighters. Most fighters now are between 14 and 18 years-old,” said Lieutenant Colonel Guy Jones, commander of 2-508th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, based in Arghandab.
“In 2002, fighters were 22 to 30-years-old and commanders were between 32 and 40,” said Jones who is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan.
Jones pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket to illustrate his point. On the paper are the names of recently captured detainees with their photographs beside them. Their ages range from 14 to 20.
One wounded boy caught firing a weapon at U.S. forces is now recovering in hospital at the main foreign air base in Kandahar. He is only 13, said Jones.
Source: Jonathon Burch for Reuters.