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The impact of explosive weapons on children in Afghanistan

After almost 19 years of ongoing conflict, Afghanistan has become one of the deadliest countries in the world. Alongside the thousands of Afghan governmental and coalition force fatalities, and the disturbingly increasing numbers of adult civilian casualties, children are severely impacted by the ongoing violence.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the Afghan conflict remains the world’s deadliest conflict for children. In 2018 alone, 927 children were killed due to the conflict and 2,135 children were injured there. Most of the civilian casualties occurred in Kabul due to the large number of complex and high-profile attacks with Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) and suicide bombers there. While armed ground clashes between governmental and anti-government forces remain the main cause for child casualties and child insecurity, 49% of the Kabul population perceives suicide bombings as the major threat to child safety.

In 2019, UNAMA monitored a slight increase of child casualties (3,149 casualties) compared to 2018. And though the main cause of child casualties remains from ground engagements (39%), the imperative for this paper emerged from the fact that 33% of child casualties there were caused by suicide (15%) and non-suicide (18%) IEDs.

The types of IEDs that cause child casualties in Afghanistan appear to be dependent on the geographic location of the attack. A comparison of ACLED reports on child casualties from IED attacks with UNODC data on the ‘security situation’ in Afghanistan, shows that child casualties in rural (insurgent controlled) areas are mostly caused by Victim Operated IEDs (VOIEDs), whereas child casualties in urban (governmental controlled) areas are mostly from suicide bombers or complex IED attacks.

The reason for these rural VOIEDs (also known sometimes as ‘artisanal’ or improvised landmines) is the defensive strategies of the insurgency in its controlled areas, mainly the areas of high poppy cultivation, likely including local Taliban HQs. In order to prevent governmental intervention against poppy fields and narcotics factories, the Taliban puts VOIEDs (usually pressure plates) on the access routes around their facilities. This tactic poses significant danger to children playing in the streets and walking to school. So, even though the Taliban claims to focus on the reduction of civilian casualties, it still accepts the high risk of child casualties by using indiscriminate measures in its fight against the government.

Even though the number of VOIEDs is higher than the amount of suicide attacks or VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device), the latter IED types cause substantially higher casualties. VBIEDs and suicide attacks are also more common in the bigger cities in Afghanistan where a higher population density resides. The use of such devastating and headline-grabbing means, such as VBIEDs and suicide attackers, is also intended to have execute the so-called ‘propaganda of the deed’, having political and media impact.

Clearly little care or planning goes into ensuring children are not caught up in these attacks. On 1 July 2019, the Taliban executed a complex attack against the Afghan Ministry of Defence in Kabul. The location of a school on the ground floor of the facility led to at least 52 child casualties. A few days later, on 7 July 2019, the Taliban executed a suicide VBIED attack on a National Directorate of Security (NDS) compound in Ghazni City. The location of three schools in the close proximity of the compound led to 85 child casualties. Indeed, it could be that the death of children in such attacks is part of the strategic plan – to sow division and destabilise.

The Taliban, in general, claims it does not directly target civilians in high profile attacks, however it disregards potential civilian casualties while planning and executing an attack against governmental or coalition forces’ facilities. Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), in the other hand, definitely does not discriminate governmental targets from civilian. One of the main targets of ISKP in Afghanistan is the Shi’a Muslim community, which is significantly represented among the Hazara tribal population. These attacks are targeted specifically at such ethnic groups and cause high numbers of civilian casualties, including children. On 17 August 2019, ISKP executed a suicide attack during a Shi’a wedding ceremony in Kabul, resulting in 50 child casualties.

Impact on Children

In a survey conducted by Save the Children in Afghanistan, the effect of the high number of IED attacks has almost certainly impacted the population’s perception of child safety in Afghanistan. Indeed, the ongoing violence and uncertainty due to indiscriminate IED attacks not only cause physical harm to children, but also brings psychological harm too. The survey showed that 73% of Afghan children surveyed suffered from long-term fearfulness and anxiety, and 48% suffered from prolonged sadness and sleep disturbance.

Access to education and health care
In October 2019 Save the Children reported that more than 3.7 million children are currently out of school, 60 percent of them girls. In 2018, 700 schools remained closed because of the violence. 3.8 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance, 600,000 of whom are suffering with severe malnutrition.

There have been numerous attacks on schools and health facilities in Afghanistan – all of which have a major impact on children and their development. The 2019 Afghan presidential election period has witnessed a peak in targeted attacks against such facilities. The main reason for such attacks is the ongoing use of government-owned schools and health facilities as polling centres, despite the repeated recommendations by the UN to use mosques instead. Even though the schools cancel all classes a few days prior to the Election Day to reduce child casualties, the damage inflicted to the facilities has a long-term impact on children’s access to education and health care.

As documented by AOAV, due to the male-dominated street life in Afghanistan, boys are most affected by the ongoing threats. Indeed, the increased likelihood of boys to start working at a young age and the conservative Islamic limitations for girls to attend school or go outside alone, leads to a higher exposure of boys to the constant IED threat. The high numbers of civilian casualties also indicate the loss of breadwinners within Afghan families, consequently forcing young boys and girls to quit school and help with the financial support to the family.

Children as ‘perpetrators’
The use of IEDs by armed groups in Afghanistan also includes the attempt of these groups to recruit children to execute suicide attacks. These recruitment efforts mainly occur in madrasas and mosques where Mullahs affiliated to armed groups influence children with an extreme and violent interpretation of Islamic teachings. Indeed, ISKP focuses on underage children as young as three years old to start indoctrination for suicide missions. There are two main reasons why children are recruited to conduct suicide attacks; first, and foremost, children are more receptive to brainwashing and indoctrination techniques. Children are especially vulnerable to promises related to the afterlife contained within Islamic eschatology. Second, the perception of children as innocent and harmless can be exploited by armed groups to facilitate the infiltration into vital governmental areas to conduct IED attacks. Children are less likely to be targeted by security forces for security checks and can more easily smuggle an IED into a targeted area. In 2019, AOAV documented two confirmed cases of children being used to conduct a suicide attack; on 12 July, a child suicide bomber targeted a wedding party in Nangarhar, causing 45 civilian casualties. On 2 September, a child suicide bomber targeted the Afghan police in Kunduz City, causing 33 police, and 10 civilian casualties.

On 29 February 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban officially signed the ‘Agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan’ in Doha, Qatar. In the case that this peace agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. leads to a long-term reduction in violence and the subsequent intra-Afghan talks cause an integration of the Taliban into the government, a short-term decrease of IED attacks is expected. However, it is also assessed that the Taliban could partially splinter when the peace deal has impact, possibly leading to intra-Taliban fighting. It cannot be discounted that an intra-Afghan power struggle, similar to the post-Soviet civil war, will lead to a continuation of violence within the country.

These hypotheses will particularly deteriorate the security situation for Afghan children due to the probable drawdown of coalition troops within the next 14 months. In addition, there is also threatened loss of a major military medical capacity in Afghanistan that conducts pediatric trauma care. The presence of military medical facilities in this war-torn country has proven to be of high value to the immediate treatment of blast trauma of children, consequently leading to a higher chance of survival for child casualties.

Overall, the use of IEDs has impacted children in Afghanistan in terrible and profound ways.  There has been the direct death and injury of children. There has been damage to schools and medical facilities where children find learning and health assistance. Finally, there has been the untold and deep psychological impacts that IEDs can bring, devastating childhoods and rupturing innocence.

Despite such horrors, the impact of IEDs on children is a little-discussed topic and the responses to such harm is under-funded, under-researched and under-prioritised. It is hoped this briefing document can focus minds and intentions to address this horror.

For more research on the impact of explosive violence on children, please visit AOAV’s category page on this matter here.