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By: LGen Roméo Dallaire and Dr. Shelly Whitman
In our fight against the Islamic State (ISIL), it is not only guns and bombs that we face, but children used as weapons of war. This is a profound aspect of the conflict and one that we cannot, and must not, wait to address on the battlefield.
These children are used to move deftly between the ranks providing adult fighters with ammunition or supplies. They are strapped with bombs and detonated in public areas, to devastating effect. They are used in propaganda and to recruit other children. They are even used to provide blood from their own bodies to treat wounded fighters.
It can be hard to distinguish child soldiers from adult soldiers on the battlefield. However, there are multiple ways to prevent and interact with children beyond the battlefield that can reduce the fighting force capability. These options are completely impossible from the cockpit of a plane at 10,000 ft.
This is a conflict that requires boots on the ground. But it is high time we become more intelligent about the roles the boots on the ground can effectively undertake, with new tools and preparation.
The recruitment and use of child soldiers in the fight with ISIL represents a complex reality that requires a multifaceted approach. Canada’s decision to remove our CF-18s from airstrikes and increase our training presence recognizes a tacit understanding that this conflict cannot be fought through only one dimension. It recognizes that ISIL is focused on preparing a new generation to sustain the fight, and regional forces must be prepared to face this long into the future. It also recognizes that the recruitment and use of children is predicated on a narrative that is not solved by airstrikes, but is instead amplified.
ISIL’s efforts to enlist and use the “cubs of caliphate” provides a glimpse of the lengths that it is prepared to go to, along with its long-term strategy for this conflict. Its use of children as weapons of war represents a specific tactical and strategic response to reach its ultimate goals. At the same time, we should recognize that ISIL is not the only armed group using child soldiers in Iraq and Syria.
Training of local forces is a key gap that has yet to be addressed to interrupt this use of child soldiers and remove the strategic advantage that ISIL and others currently possess in using children. When equipped with the tools to address how children are used as instruments of war, our troops and partners on the ground can intervene in a prevention-oriented manner to ultimately protect children as well as themselves.
Over the past year, my organization, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, has begun critical conversations with the Canadian Forces to begin the process of introducing new doctrine and training to address the threat of child soldiers. This unique approach to the security dimension of preventing child soldiers could put Canada ahead of the Brits, the French, even the Americans. It is an approach that is vital to support the troops in the Syria/Iraq conflict.
Earlier this month, my organization partnered with Wounded Warriors Canada, launching a new program that will leverage the skills and experience of Canadian veterans to enhance training. The Dallaire Initiative’s Veteran Trainers to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers (VTECS) program will equip a substantial cadre of Canadian veterans to become trainers on our unique approach and enable new approaches to end the use and recruitment of child soldiers.
Innovative programs such as VTECS are required to ensure that those who continue to serve on the battlefield have the skills necessary to be effective in facing the realities of modern conflict. Secondly, the VTECS program provides tangible skills transition for our Canadian Forces veterans to apply their hard-earned experience on the battlefield to a new mission.
Removing the tactical advantages of using children as weapons of war requires preparation and training of professional forces. We can then greatly diminish the fighting capacity of groups such as ISIL, and interrupt the recruitment of other children. Through our training efforts in the region, we can effectively build this capacity with local forces. This approach can go a long way to prevent conflict and mitigate the impact of conflict overall.
Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant general, retired Canadian senator and founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative; Dr. Shelly Whitman is the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.