South Asia

What does Bin Laden death mean for Afghan war?

Four boys
Image caption All four were friends from the same village of Afghan refugees in Pakistan

The US military commander in Afghanistan has said the killing of Osama Bin Laden may weaken al-Qaeda's influence on the Taliban. Even so, warned Gen David Petraeus, Afghanistan could still become a potential refuge for international terror groups. Meanwhile, members of Congress have been calling for US troops to hasten their withdrawal. Paul Wood reports from Kabul on the course of the Afghan war now that Osama Bin Laden is dead.

The news conference had been called, said the Afghan official, to show us four children recruited by the Taliban as suicide bombers.

A shocked hush fell over the room when they were actually brought in. They seemed ridiculously young, small figures dwarfed by the soldier leading them onto the stage.

We discovered later that they were aged just eight to 10. In their brightly coloured shalwar kameez - freshly pressed for the occasion - they giggled, not sure what to make of the TV cameras and flashes.

Hopping nervously from foot to foot, Faizil, recited the story of what had happened to them.

Kill infidels

The mullah at his mosque told them the bomb would not kill them, he said, only infidels. He would survive and be given money for his family.

We met them later at the juvenile detention centre in Kabul. The story in the news conference had had a slightly rehearsed quality. We wanted to check if it was true.

Sitting on a wooden bench in a room with bars on the windows, they answered a string of questions from me.

"There was a mullah in the village mosque who encouraged us to go for jihad," said Ghulam, who told me he was nine-and-a-half.

"He would always tell us to go to Afghanistan, wear a suicide vest and blow it up to kill infidels."

All four were friends from the same village of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. All four had been told the same story, that they would survive the bombing.

Eight-year-old Nyaz said: "We didn't know about suicide attacks at all. We believed what our mullah told us.

"But when we got to the border we asked someone if it was right that after a suicide attack, you could survive. He said 'no,' so we asked a policeman to show us the bus that goes back to our home. But he arrested us."

They said the mullah had put them on a bus to Afghanistan, telling them they would be picked up at the border by a Taliban contact; "a stylish man with shaved beard and short hair". He would take them to be trained and given bombs.

"It was early morning when we went to the mosque to study. The mullah sent us directly to the bus station.

Image caption A 14-year-old girl, flanked by her father, declares her desire for martyrdom, in a recording by the Taliban

"He didn't allow us to go back home once and he even didn't allow us to have breakfast," said Ghulam.

So they hadn't told their families they were leaving, and didn't know how to contact them now.

He thought of his mother worrying about him and he started to cry. So did the others.

A Taliban spokesman told me the children were telling lies fed to them by the Afghan authorities.

He said the Taliban's constitution forbade using anyone under 18, "without beard", being used for military operations.

The children seemed credible to me. Over two hours of discussion, their stories remained consistent, with lots of detail.

One of the little boys told me that after their arrest, one of the policemen had taken him to a room, put a gun to his head and attempted to rape him, before some other policemen arrived to stop it.

They were also upset because a guard had thrown their hats on the roof of the detention centre, where they could not get them.

In the news conference, we were told they were aged 12-14, but they all maintained they were much younger.

Twelve is the age of criminal responsibility in Afghanistan. The prosecutor is deciding what to do with them now. They may be charged with intending to carry out a crime, which would mean they wouldn't see their families for a long time.

Bin Laden's legacy

Where does this sad story fit into the post-Osama Bin Laden narrative in Afghanistan?

During the long years of the anti-Soviet jihad, there were no suicide bombings here.

"Martyrdom operations" were brought to Afghanistan by al-Qaeda. It is now a tactic the Taliban have made their own. That is part of Osama Bin Laden's legacy here.

The Afghan intelligence services say so many bombings are being carried out that the insurgents have to recruit child "martyrs". To Afghan officials, this shows how close the Taliban are to al-Qaeda, in ideology, and perhaps in organisation too.

The Americans still hope the Taliban - or part of it - can be split off from al-Qaeda.

A peace deal might then be possible because - so the argument goes - the Taliban could return to Afghanistan without bringing al-Qaeda with them.

A negotiated settlement may be the only way to end this war. But many Afghans are worried about the cost of such a deal.

Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, organised a rally of several thousand people opposed to talks with the Taliban.

He told me afterwards: "We want dignified peace. We don't want the massive aspirations of the anti-Taliban constituency, which is not ethnic, to be undermined by talking to the Taliban."

He went on: "If we see the national interest of Afghanistan undermined, and we see our people are pushed again into margins through a deal, we would prefer a dignified resistance than a disgraceful peace.

"That would be peace by name but in reality would be the end and death of a pluralistic Afghanistan."

So far, anyway, the Taliban show no signs of coming in.

They put out a video at the weekend. Half a dozen fighters paraded with their weapons and one read a statement. Osama Bin Laden's blood would "nourish the sapling of jihad in Afghanistan," he said.

Another video was passed to us this week. It was discovered in a raid on a Taliban safe house in southern Afghanistan.

A girl in a burka sits in a darkened room.

"I want to become a martyr," she says. "I want to take revenge on the Americans, Jews and Christians. I won't leave any Westerners on this sacred land."

She was just 14 years old, we were told. And by her side sat her father.

"My daughter wants to carry out a suicide attack because infidels have invaded our country," he said.

The cameraman was from the Taliban and can be heard prompting her replies. They shot the same answers from three different angles.

It was the raw footage for a "martyrdom video" to be used after an attack. The intelligence source who supplied the tape said the girl on it had already blown herself up.

There will be many more such videos. Whatever Osama Bin Laden's death means, it will not bring the rapid end of the war in Afghanistan.

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