War and revenge is all the young recruits of the Northern Alliance and Taliban know

Mukhtar is an infantryman in Afghanistan’s rebel army. He can shoot a man in the beard from a standing position at 200 m or point out camouflaged Taliban bunkers through miles of dust. His platoon leader says the green-eyed soldier is the finest he has ever commanded, and Mukhtar takes the compliment with a shrug of his skinny shoulders. “I have been in the army for a long time,” he says. “So I should be good at my job.” Indeed, Mukhtar is a four-year veteran of Afghanistan’s draining desert war. But he is only 15 years old.

Afghanistan’s youth have never known peace. For two decades, their country has been at war, first with the Soviets and then among homegrown factions. So many children wander the streets with firearms that, after a while, scenes of 12-year-olds skipping along with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders seem almost normal. If Afghanistan is ever to settle into peace, these children will have the hardest time adjusting to a place where people don’t resolve political squabbles with the pull of a trigger. “One of the most difficult things to change in our country is the younger generation’s mind-set,” says Abdullah Farazi, who helps feed orphans living in a refugee camp near the frontline town of Dast-e-Qale. “How can we convince them that this thing called peace is better than the guns they carry everywhere?”

Even for child soldiers, bloodlust runs deep. Nearly five years ago, while Mukhtar was out fetching water from a stream, his parents were killed by Taliban rockets. His three brothers, two sisters and the family camel died, too. When Mukhtar returned home, the only creature left in the village was a dog, which sat in the dust coughing up blood. The boy used his father’s rifle to put the animal out of its misery. It was the first time he had used a firearm, and it took him four shots. Three months later, Mukhtar joined the rebel Northern Alliance army to learn how to use a Kalashnikov. “My life is dedicated to killing the Taliban,” he says, his reedy voice untouched by adulthood. “I will spend the rest of my life finding the people who killed my family.”

The Northern Alliance swears it inducts no soldiers younger than 18 years old. But a visit to the trenches proves that rule unenforced. Zulmai leans against a rusty Russian tank on a hill overlooking the Taliban-controlled city of Taloqan. He is 18 but joined the mujahedin at 15, just as his four brothers did. One brother has already been killed, and Zulmai falters when asked if children should be fighting an adult’s war. A Northern Alliance Foreign Ministry official named Musadiqallah steps in: “Our cause is so great that even our children want to join us in fighting the enemy.”

In truth, most kids join the army because there’s little else to do—and to keep their bellies filled. In a country with limited electricity or running water and few roads, many boys must forgo school to make money any way they can, even following cows with upturned palms to catch excrement to sell as fuel. Joining the army guarantees free food, clothes and cigarettes—plus the chance to swagger. “When you fight for your people, you become a man,” says Shukrullah, 12, who strolls the mountainous streets of Farkhar with a loaded, unlocked Kalashnikov. For these youngsters, it doesn’t matter that most soldiers have not received their $25 monthly salary for three months. “This is a very good life,” says baby-faced teenager Safaullah, sitting in a trench in Dast-e-Qale. “I can eat good rice, play chess with my friends and fire many interesting weapons.”

On the opposite side of the front lines, the Taliban also profits from young guns. Taken from their homes before their teens, these kids are steeped in battle tactics and religious fanaticism. War orphans are especially prized by the Taliban because they have no home to which they can escape. By the time they reach adulthood, the mullahs and commanders of the Taliban have become their family. The Taliban insists the extreme measures of jihad require extreme schooling. “Children are innocent, so they are the best tools against dark forces,” says a Pakistani Taliban fighter, who was captured by the Northern Alliance last month near Dast-e-Qale. Najibullah, a 10-year-old refugee from Taliban-controlled Kunduz province, lives crammed in a ragged tent with his parents and four siblings. Already, he knows how to fire a Kalashnikov from daily target practice with his family firearm. When he is older, he hopes to fire a rocket-propelled grenade. “I am small now,” he says, squaring his tiny shoulders. “But I will be big when I shoot the Taliban who killed my aunt and uncle.” By avenging their deaths, Najibullah is carrying on family custom. His father tracked down the Soviet platoon that killed relatives in the 1980s and lobbed fatal grenades at their encampment. “If I am murdered by the Taliban, then my sons will honor my name by killing the enemy,” says the prepubescent Najibullah. Despite hopes for peace, some Afghan traditions may be impossible to break.

(adapted from TIME)

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