- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan | In a voice barely above a whisper, I.H. stared at his feet as he recounted haltingly how the Taliban had kidnapped him and a classmate as they had played in the street. They cleaned dishes for a few days in a militant training camp in northern Pakistan before escaping during Friday prayers, he said.

The Pakistani army says it has so far found 20 boys like I.H., who is being identified only by his initials for his safety, in the battle-scarred Swat Valley, scene of a major offensive against the Taliban in the spring.

The soldiers think the Taliban hoped to turn the boys into informants, fighters or even suicide bombers. Some escaped; others were rescued by authorities. Maj. Nasir Khan said many more are believed to be in the hands of militants.

Eleven such boys — the youngest only about 7 years old — were presented to journalists Monday at a military base in the Swat’s main town of Mingora.

The Taliban have been known to use children as fighters before in Afghanistan, and the army seems keen to capitalize on the boys’ capture, hoping their stories will help turn public opinion against the militants.

The spring offensive in Swat — to clear the region of militants after they flouted a peace deal and expanded their area of control — was relatively popular in Pakistan. The government now hopes to extend its grip on Swat to prevent Taliban fighters likely hiding in the mountains from mounting their own counteroffensive to regain control of the strategic area.

The U.S. sees Pakistan’s ability to take on the Taliban as key to its own troops’ success across the border in Afghanistan. But some Pakistanis support the Taliban, especially in the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan, and the army’s military campaign against them also has involved public-relations battles.

Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar could not be reached for comment on the militants’ use of children.

The boys on Monday said they had spent time in training camps — though how long was unclear. They mostly said just a few days, but the army said they probably were with the Taliban for a month or more.

Three of the boys appeared to be younger than 10 and were visibly traumatized, occasionally breaking down in tears. The others were mostly in their midteens. Of the six who spoke to Associated Press, most said they had been made to clean dishes or undergo rigorous physical training. None said he had been trained to carry out a suicide attack.

Feriha Peracha, a clinical neuropsychologist called in by the army to assess the boys, said some of them clearly were depressed and traumatized. However, she said it was unlikely all had been kidnapped as they claimed.

“It’s only one or two maximum out of this group that I would say was probably actually taken by force,” Ms. Peracha said.

The Taliban have been known to persuade boys to join their ranks or even pay impoverished families to hand over a young future fighter, Maj. Khan said.

“They are like the Mafia. Some children are inspired by them. They command respect because people are afraid of them,” he said.

Ms. Peracha said most of the boys she interviewed tested below average on intelligence tests and came from poor families, which may have made them easy targets for the militants. One displayed psychotic symptoms.

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