Sunday, July 25, 2010

Child Soldiers: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Came across this story from a couple of weeks ago by the New York Times’ Jeffery Gettleman (kudos to Gettleman by the way for some fine reporting from Somalia) about perhaps an unintended consequence of the United States’ covert involvement in Somalia: child soldiers.

Sadly, child soldiers have become a feature of some of Africa’s bloodier conflicts, from the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia to the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Gettleman reports that now armed children - between 10 and 13 years old - are starting to appear in Somalia, not only in the ranks of the Islamist militias active in the country, but also in service with the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – the group that supposedly is trying to bring the ideas of democracy and the rule of law back to this war-torn country. Gettlemen tells the story of Awil, a boy who believes he is 12 (Awil was abandoned by his parents and has no birth certificate) who “struggles” to carry the ten pound weight of his loaded Kalashnikov assault rifle, though he does not hesitate to point it at drivers attempting to speed past his roadside checkpoint. Awil is a member in good-standing of a TFG militia, the TFG meanwhile is funded in part by the United States, which means that we are helping to provide the $1.50 Awil earns a day for being a soldier. One of his comrades, Ahmed, claims that when he was 12 he was sent for military training to Uganda, where US soldiers are helping to try to whip the TFG militia into something resembling an army – meaning that the US may have actually directly trained Ahmed and other child soldiers, though Gettleman notes he could not independently confirm this part of the story.

Past the disturbing image of child soldiers - and the more disturbing image of US-funded child soldiers - the story of Awil points to a larger problem: the basic neglect the world has had towards Somalia for the past two decades. The country has largely been without a functioning government since their last dictator, Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991. After the tragic (and perhaps embarrassing) loss in combat of 19 US troops in Mogadishu in 1993 - an event immortalized in the book/film Black Hawk Down, ostensibly there to provide security for a humanitarian food aid program, the global community has largely taken a hands-off approach to Somalia. The TFG was suppose to restore order to the country, but has only been a presence in Somalia for the past few years; and then basically only in Mogadishu – not much of an impact considering that from north-to-south Somalia is about as long as the East Coast of the United States. The TFG only reentered Somalia with the support of Ethiopian troops, who themselves only backed the TFG in a meaningful way when it looked like pro-Islamist militias might take over the country (Ethiopia is largely Christian). After a couple of years, Ethiopia grew tired of an ongoing guerilla campaign against the Islamist militias and pulled out, leaving a small force of troops from Uganda and Burundi as the military muscle behind the TFG – well, them and “soldiers” like Awil. The TFG admits that they need to “screen” potential soldiers more carefully; though they also admit they need anyone who can hold a rifle in their struggle against militant groups like al-Shabab, who control large parts of Somalia. So expect children like Awil to find themselves with guns in their hands, apparently at US taxpayer expense.
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