MUSA QALA, Afghanistan — Afghan children as young as 3 years old are being used by the Taliban as human shields or to gather spent cartridges, and teen-agers are being given motorcycles for planting roadside bombs, U.S. Marines say.
"We've seen children actually dropping mortar rounds in the (firing) tubes against us," says Lt. Col. Michael Manning, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment that is rotating home after seven months in this hilly northern district of Helmand province.
"I've never seen a culture that cares so little for human life. They (the Taliban) truly don't care unless it impacts their own personal family," says Manning, who has lost 13 Marines and seen 127 wounded since March.
U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers routed the Taliban from Helmand's main city of Marjah in February. They have undertaken an offensive to drive the Taliban from the province and are pressing into regions that the jihadists have held for years.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of Marine ground combat forces here, says the Taliban is increasingly relying on children to fend off the Marine offensive.
Marines have witnessed youngsters dragging away wounded Taliban, planting roadside bombs and collecting dropped weapons, he says.
At a remote firebase east of here, squad leader Sgt. John Ellis says he found children selling heroin wrapped in torn pages of the Quran in the village streets.
"We found children with pockets of heroin and wads of cash," Ellis says.
A Marine Corps battlefield report describes a fight in the Marjah district in August, where retreating insurgents "placed five children shoulder to shoulder on (the roadway) to cover their movements. Once the children were placed, the Taliban element mounted their motorcycles and escaped."
Another incident in the report describes how a child was sent out onto a roadway to observe a Marine patrol from a distance of 150 yards. He used hand signals to communicate the patrol's movements to an unseen enemy. Later, the patrol was ambushed, the report says.
"In both instances, the Taliban elements were willing to place children in direct danger to avoid risking themselves," says the report, portions of which were provided to USA TODAY by Osterman's office.
Battlefield reports typically derive from the observations of Marine officers in the field. The Marine Corps says it is difficult to identify how many instances where insurgents have been seen using children in Helmand. But they said there have been 50 battlefield reports filed since March listing one or several cases of kids used in combat.
"We're seeing an increasing trend," Osterman says of the Taliban's use of children.
Marine commanders believe that families are either coerced into allowing children to be used by Taliban fighters, or in the case of adolescents, paid money or offered inducements to fight, such as small, Chinese-made motorcycles.
"It's a recruitable, very easily influenced group of people," Manning says of the children and families. "And there's tons of them."Osterman compares the trend with what happened in areas of Africa where child soldiers became veteran fighters. "Have they (the Taliban) gotten to that point of desperation now where they're going down that road which turns kids into combatants?" he says.