Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Whitaker with Combined Anti-Armor Team 1, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, throws candy for a group of Afghan children during a patrol in the Garmsir district of Helmand province in February. While Marines often enjoy good relations with Afghan kids, some serve as Taliban spotters or even as suicide bombers. (Cpl. Reece Lodder / Marine Corps)
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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — When Marines in Helmand province sized up shadowy figures that appeared to be emplacing an improvised explosive device, it looked like a straightforward mission. They got clearance for an airstrike, a Marine official said, and took out the targets.
It wasn't that simple, however. Three individuals hit were 12, 10 and 8 years old, leading the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul to say it may have "accidentally killed three innocent Afghan civilians."
But a Marine official here raised questions about whether the children were "innocent." Before calling for the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System mission in mid-October, Marines observed the children digging a hole in a dirt road in Nawa district, the official said, and the Taliban may have recruited the children to carry out the mission.
The incident underscores a continuing problem across Afghanistan. The use of children by the Taliban — through recruitment and as human shields — complicates coalition forces' efforts to eliminate enemy fighters from the battlefield without angering civilians.
The New York Times reported that the dead children's family members said they had been sent to gather dung, which farmers use for fuel. Taliban fighters were laying the bombs near the children, who were mistakenly killed, they said.
Regardless, it's one of many times the children have been involved in the war. In a case this year, Afghan National Police in Kandahar province's Zharay district found two boys, ages 9 and 11, with a male 18-year-old carrying 1-liter soda bottles full of enough potassium chlorate to kill coalition forces on a foot patrol.
"It kind of opens our aperture," said Army Lt. Col. Marion "Ced" Carrington, whose unit, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was assisting the Afghan police. "In addition to looking for military-age males, it's looking for children with potential hostile intent."
There were 316 documented cases of underage recruitment in the war last year, most of them attributed to the Taliban and other armed groups like the Haqqani network, according to a U.N. report released in April. Eleven children, including an 8-year-old girl, were killed in Afghanistan last year carrying out suicide attacks, the report said.
Marines in Helmand say the Taliban regularly recruit children to serve as spotters, letting armed insurgents know when U.S. or Afghan forces reach designated points on a patrol so they can prepare an ambush.
An ISAF spokesman, Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, said insurgents continue to use children as suicide bombers and IED emplacers, even though Taliban leader Mullah Omar has ordered them to stop harming civilians.
Lamothe reported from Afghanistan. Gould reported from Washington.