The United States has admitted to imprisoning hundreds of Afghan children as 'enemy combatants' in a report to the United Nations.
The Associated Press reports that the State Department informed the world body of the detentions as part of compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
More than 200 children, who were mostly 16-year-olds according to the United States' admission, have been captured during the ongoing 11-year-long US invasion and occupation in Afghanistan. They are held for about a year each at the Parwan Detention Facility, a military prison next to Bagram Airfield where detainees are held without charge or trial and where Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former prisoners claim they are held in "Guantanamo-like conditions" and tortured.
Pentagon documents report at least two detainee homicides committed by US troops at Bagram.
The US has been imprisoning the Afghan children "to prevent a combatant from returning to the battlefield," according to the report.
"Many of them have been released or transferred to the Afghan government," the report states.
While the military admits that the average age of the captured detainees is around 16, human rights advocates claim that much younger children have been rounded up and imprisoned by US forces.
"I've represented children as young as 11 or 12 who have been at Bagram," Tina M. Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, a group that represents Bagram detainees, told the Associated Press. Foster also questioned the number of children imprisoned by the United States.
"I question the number 200, because there are thousands of detainees at Parwan. There are other children whose parents have said these children are under 18 at the time of their capture, and the US doesn't allow the detainees or their families to contest their age."
Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union also believes that younger children are being held in the prison.
"It is highly likely that some children were as young as 14 or 13 years old when they were detained by US forces," Dakwar told the Associated Press.
Dakwar said that imprisoning youngsters for lengthy periods "exposes children in detention to greater risk of physical and mental abuse, especially if they are denied access to protections guaranteed to them under international law."
In its last report to the United Nations, filed in 2008, the US admitted that the military held around 500 Iraqi children. According to that report, the US imprisoned around 2,500 children, most of them in Iraq, during the course of the War on Terror. Children as young as 12 were also jailed in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, former commander Gen. Janis Karpinski said she visited child detainees, including one boy who "looked like he was eight years old."
Children as young as 11 were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib. Girls, as well as boys, were held. Both girls and boys were raped and sexually assaulted, as were older women, by US troops and contractors at the prison; Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba's scathing 2004 report compiled in the wake of the torture photo scandal tells of an Army translator who raped a teenage boy while a female soldier photographed the attack.
Sadly, the vast majority of prisoners held by the US in Iraq-- as many as 90 percent of them, according to US intelligence estimates-- were innocent. Many innocent Iraqis, especially women, were imprisoned as bargaining chips in the hope that male relatives suspected of resisting the US-led invasion and occupation would turn themselves in, another clear violation of international law.
Gen. Karpinski, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib at the time of the torture photo scandal, told the BBC that a superior officer told her he didn't care about innocent civilians imprisoned by mistake.
"I don't care if we're holding 15,000 innocent civilians," Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, then the second-highest Army general in Iraq, allegedly told Karpinski. "We're winning the war."
Although the United States is submitting its report in compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the US and Somalia are the only two nations which have not ratified the treaty.
The Obama administration also indirectly supports the use of child soldiers by repeatedly granting waivers from the Child Soldiers Protection Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008, to countries in Africa and the Middle East which use children in their armed forces. The waivers, personally authorized by President Barack Obama, allow war-torn nations such as Libya, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid despite the fact that they are known to use child soldiers.