Thursday, July 30, 2009

On the recruitment of suicide bombers

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has been making excellent documentaries about the growth of fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I posted a clip from her documentary, Children of Taliban, last May. Here is her opinion piece for The Independent regarding the recruitment of children by the Taliban for suicide bombings. If there is still any room not to be disgusted and appalled by the Taliban (at least those that are recruiting these kids - there are several different flavors of the Taliban), then check out this bit:

Twenty-five children appear in a Taliban propaganda video wearing the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez. They sit cross- legged on the ground rocking back and forth reciting the Koran. A white bandana tied across their forehead, reads: "La illaha illala: There is no God but God."

The compound they are in is bare. In one corner, three young boys hold automatic guns keeping watch. Their teacher, dressed in brown military fatigues walks around reading aloud from a book titled Justifications for Suicide bombing and makes a list on a whiteboard – "Reasons for killing a spy". The text on the screen reads "Preparing suicide bombers".

In another chilling video, three boys speak about their desire to become suicide bombers. The video introduces Zainullah, who later blows himself up killing six, Sadique, who blows himself up killing 22, and Masood who kills 28. The video contains footage of their attacks and in the background a young child sings: "If you try and find me after I have died, you will never find my whole body, you will find little pieces."

But then Sharmeen makes some generalizations that gloss over some of the complexities. For example, she writes about the madrassas:

In a country where the average family size is seven people and the daily wage is as low as £1 a day, many families choose to send their children to Islamic religious schools, where they are given free food and shelter. Now increasingly, the Taliban are recruiting from these schools and paying the families a monthly stipend in return.

The statement about the Taliban recruitment is probably correct. But the most important bit here is "many families choose to send their children to Islamic religious schools" and "many" has been left completely ambiguous. I know the issue of the numbers of madrassas is tricky (see an earlier post, Madrassas vs Private Schools in Pakistan), but still one can get a rough idea about the fraction that includes "many". Otherwise, we can't judge the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the problem.

A similar problem creeps up later in her article:

Qari Abdullah, a Taliban commander in charge of child recruitment, told me children are an essential element of Jihad. "If you're fighting, then God provides you with the means [to win]. Kids themselves are tools to achieve God's will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it."

Children as young as five and six years old are being recruited from poor families, he said. "The kids want to join us because they like our weapons."

There are 80 million children in Pakistan. More than a quarter of them live below the poverty line. If the militants continue to recruit freely, then soon Pakistan will belong to them.

Is she saying that over 20 million children (or a majority of this number) can fall into the hands of the Taliban? Don't we have to first ask: How many kids living below the poverty line end up in madrassas - and not just any madrassas, but those from where the Taliban have much influence? Remember that the 20 million number represents the entire Pakistan - whereas the Taliban insurgency is limited (primarily) to the northern areas of Pakistan. Yes, some madrassas even in the urban centers provide support to the Taliban - but what is the fraction that does not? Plus, there are also Pashtun tribesmen that are fighting against the Taliban. What about their madrassas?

Let me be clear: the Taliban problem is serious - no question about it. But this opinion piece plays a bit loose with the numbers to create an even greater sensational effect. I'm sympathetic to the position she is advocating, but this gets me a bit annoyed. I felt the same way after watching Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. When he gave statistics for gun-related homicides in the US and compared it to Canada and the UK, he did not normalize those numbers by the respective population of the countries (an essential to say any thing meaningful) - thus making the distinction a lot more dramatic than the real situation. But he didn't have to do it - the normalized numbers are still bad - just not as bad as he portrayed them to be.

Yes, the recruitment of children as suicide bombers (or for war, in general) is as bad as it gets. We should certainly attempt to control the madrassas where this recruitment is taking place. But we also need to stay close to the facts and numbers we have to accurately assess and tackle this threat.

Read the full article here.


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