Report

The Child Soldier Crisis: ‘Kids Are Cheap’

The Pentagon’s Middle East policy chief decries new recruitment of children in Syria and the Yemen civil war.

A Syrian boy holds an AK-47 assault rifle
A Syrian boy holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the majority-Kurdish Sheikh Maqsood district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 14, 2013. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

When Michael Mulroy first met Anthony Opoka, Mulroy was a CIA paramilitary officer working to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent insurgency operating in central Africa against the government of Uganda. Mulroy noticed that Opoka, a young Acholi man working as a cultural advisor to Mulroy’s unit, had an old shoulder injury, and he inquired about it. Opoka revealed that as a young boy he was the personal radio operator for the notorious LRA leader Joseph Kony and one of 66,000 child soldiers who fought for the LRA from 1986 to 2009. 

During his time in the field, Mulroy, now the Pentagon’s outgoing Middle East policy chief, and his colleague former U.S. Navy SEAL Eric Oehlerich befriended Opoka and learned his story. Together, Mulroy and Oehlerich made a documentary about Opoka and his wife, Florence, who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army as children and met during their time fighting for Kony. The film, My Star in the Sky, first aired this summer.

Mulroy hopes the film will shed light on the growing global problem of child soldiers, which he says does not get enough attention. Although by 2017 Kony’s force had shrunk to just 100 soldiers, from an estimated high of 3,000, the United Nations that year identified a list of 14 countries where armed paramilitary groups still use child soldiers—including Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and more. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations such as Child Soldiers International continue to struggle due to donations “fatigue,” Mulroy said. 

Despite efforts to combat the phenomenon, the use of child soldiers “is a problem that keeps getting worse, because kids are cheap,” Mulroy said in a recent interview. “A lot of these countries sign up to not use child soldiers and then they do it anyway—that’s a fact.”

One of the countries that continues to use underage fighters is Saudi Arabia, which hired Sudanese children to fight in Yemen’s civil war, U.S. State Department experts reportedly found. Defying the recommendations of his own advisors, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this summer blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a list of countries that recruit child soldiers, prompting fresh outcries by human rights advocates about the Trump administration’s relationship with Riyadh.

Mulroy also pointed to the Islamic State, which recruits or kidnaps children as young as 6 and indoctrinates them in military and religious training camps, where they practice beheading with dolls and are eventually used on the front lines as soldiers or human shields. Although the Islamic State’s physical caliphate has largely been defeated, many of the former so-called “cubs of the caliphate” remain in overcrowded camps throughout Syria with their mothers, many of whom also fought for the militant group.

Some of these refugees and Islamic State fighters have escaped the camps in recent weeks, after Turkey launched a violent military operation against Syrian Kurdish militia fighters in northeastern Syria. Ankara has promised to secure the camps, which were previously guarded by the Kurds, but at least 100 fighters have escaped, the Pentagon confirmed—and the true number is likely higher. In fact, Turkish-backed forces, which have links to extremist groups, deliberately freed some of the prisoners, Foreign Policy reported.  

Rehabilitating Islamic State cubs will be a “harder nut to crack” due to their indoctrination into extremist ideology, Mulroy said. By contrast, the LRA child soldiers, who followed Kony’s mysticism, were “brainwashed to follow orders, but not to a larger philosophy.” 

“ISIS, it’s all about establishing their version of a caliphate, a warped, distorted version of Islam,” Mulroy said. The LRA “was all about following a person who had the authority of the afterlife, and so when it was severed, at least in my experience, they did not want to continue the jihad.”

In the Opokas’ case, both Anthony and Florence finally escaped after more than 10 years fighting for the LRA and became pivotal to efforts to end the insurgency and rehabilitate child soldiers. But their journey left them with enduring scars, both mental and physical. Anthony Opoka was seriously injured six times. The sixth time, he was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, thrown into a mass grave, and almost buried until someone noticed his eyes moving. He recovered despite grave injuries and limited medical treatment—including psychedelic mushrooms—and rose through the ranks to become a celestial navigator, code-talker, and eventually a radio operator for Kony. 

Florence Opoka, meanwhile, continued her duty as a soldier. She delivered her second child during a firefight near the Nile river. After the birth, she stood up and tied the baby to her back. She picked up her first child with one hand and her assault rifle with the other. When she finally escaped and returned to her home, villagers gathered around her, calling her “Kony’s whore,” until her mother identified her.  

During a recent screening of the film in Washington, Mulroy pointed to the U.S. mission to counter the LRA, called Observant Compass, as a “model” for how to combat the use of child soldiers using influence operations instead of lethal force. Working with NGOs, commanders found the mothers of the child soldiers and had them broadcast messages to their children over the radio, begging them to come home.

“A lot of these kids didn’t think they were going to be allowed back [after fighting for the LRA], so to have their mother get on the radio and specifically tell them ‘we want you back’ was a big psychological deal to the kids,” Mulroy said during the screening. 

“So many other missions are driven by the kinetics—this was not.”

Mulroy is also on the board of directors for the Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a nonprofit group that works to rehabilitate former child soldiers of the LRA. 

Marine Corps Col. Jon Darren Duke, who previously commanded Observant Compass, said his group did everything they could to get the child soldiers to defect so they would not have to fight them. Duke’s Green Berets worked with a psychological operations team to “appeal to them to lay down their arms,” he said during the screening.  

Mulroy hopes that the Pentagon will use Observant Compass as a model for future programs to combat child soldiers, as well as other operations. Observant Compass showed how the U.S. military can use “soft power, influence operations” and other aspects of so-called “irregular warfare” to fight terrorism at its roots.  

“None of the guys out there really wanted to go and confront them—who wants to confront a child army?” Mulroy said.  

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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