An unprecedented move by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to pardon a would-be teenage Taliban homicide bomber — and pay him $2,000 to travel home to Pakistan — has drawn stinging criticism and warnings that it will encourage such attacks.
“It is a very silly idea to forgive such criminals. He was a volunteer,” Mullah Malang, an MP from Baghdis province, told The Times. “When he goes back to Pakistan he will tell all his friends that he deceived the Afghan government. He is brainwashed.”
The extraordinary case involved Rafiqullah, 14, a would-be bomber who was captured in May by Afghan police in the province of Khost, which borders Pakistan. He was wearing a suicide vest and riding a motorbike. His target was Arsala Jamal, the governor of the province.
He had crossed the border from South Waziristan, a troubled tribal belt in Pakistan, where he lived and had been attending a religious school.
“Today we are facing a hard fact: that is, a Muslim child was sent to madrassa [religious school] to learn Islamic subjects, but the enemies of Afghanistan misled him towards suicide and prepared him to die and kill,” Karzai told reporters.
“His family thought their child was learning Islamic studies,” Karzai said. “That is not his fault, nor his father’s. The enemies of Islam wanted him to destroy his life and those of other Muslims. I pardon him and wish him a good life.”
A beaming Karzai was flanked during the press conference by Rafiqullah and his father, Matiullah. As a sign of respect, father and son kept their heads bowed as Karzai spoke.
“You are now free and forgiven by the people of Afghanistan,” Karzai said, a grin spreading across his face as he spoke.
As Rafiqullah and his father walked out of the gates of the heavily fortified and luxurious presidential palace in central Kabul, the 14-year-old spoke briefly. “I am very happy that I am pardoned and released,” he said.
He owes his freedom, at least in part, to his intended victim. Arsala Jamal, the governor of Khost, said: “He is a child. I don’t believe it was his idea. He was brainwashed. Actually, it was my decision to free him. I told the president he should be free.”
Although many politicians and analysts felt the release of the child was a humane gesture, they also felt that it sent out the wrong message to insurgents. Many were also disappointed by the decision to pay the child and his family $2,000.
“I’m surprised by this act. We can’t give credibility to criminals by paying them,” Hamidullah Tukhi, an MP from Zabul province, said.
Gen. Said Mohammad Ghulbazai, a member of parliament from Khost, said: “President Karzai has opened a business for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They will send immature kids to carry out suicide attacks and if they hit the target that’s fine, if they are captured that’s fine, too, as they will be freed.”
Others, however, felt it was a masterstroke by Karzai. Wahid Muzda, a political analyst, said: “This is one of the greatest decisions by President Karzai. The Pakistanis do send their children and men to destroy the lives of Afghan men, women and children with suicide bombs but Karzai has shown his message is a humane one.”
When asked if he had a message for Pakistan, Karzai said: “The message of the Afghan people is one of kindness, the message of mercy. It’s the message of having good relations, brotherly relations. It’s the message for trade and exchange.”
He said that it was incumbent on those in Pakistan “not to deceive the children of people and encourage them to carry out suicide attacks, destroying themselves, their families and other Muslims.”
Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of harbouring Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, a charge that Islamabad denies. Officials in Kabul say that many suicide bombers and Taliban fighters are recruited from impressionable youths in Pakistan’s madrassas and sent across the border to kill.