When Mohammad Ehsar, 14, heard that American soldiers had killed his teacher during a military operation, all he could think about was revenge.
The soldiers raided the home of cleric Mawlawi Hazrat Muhammad last September. Muhammad, who was believed to be organising attacks on Nato targets, was shot. Ehsar was told that the Americans also slit his throat.
The youngster revered Muhammad, the chief cleric at his madrasah (religious school), who made clothes for poor pupils and brought food from his home.
On the night he learnt of his teacher’s death, Ehsar and five fellow pupils slipped out of their madrasah carrying two crudely made bombs wrapped in shawls.
They marched for two hours until they reached a dirt track. As the rest of the group kept watch, Ehsar dug the bombs into the earth with a shovel and unravelled some wires that would connect them to a motorcycle battery hidden on the far side of a nearby hill.
His job complete, Ehsar and two of his companions returned to the madrasah. The other boys spent the night lying in wait. At dawn, as an American convoy rumbled past, they connected the wires to the battery to detonate their bombs.
One of these improvised explosive devices (IEDs) turned out to be useless but the other exploded, tearing through the armoured chassis of the second vehicle in the convoy.
“It felt good to know we had killed the infidels,” Ehsar said. “It felt good to take revenge.”
Despite an edict banning the recruitment of children, Taliban commanders use boys as mine-layers, scouts and even suicide bombers, according to human rights groups.
Rachel Reid, of Human Rights Watch, said: “They are brainwashing young boys to be suicide bombers and forcing kids to lay mines, knowing that their opponents have higher regard for the laws of war than they do.”
Last year, Ehsar’s father, who ekes out a living growing vegetables, sent his son to a madrasah in Ghazni province’s notoriously volatile Andar district. He wanted him to receive an Islamic education and to learn the way of jihad (holy war).
At the madrasah, Ehsar was shown videos of the “horrible crimes that infidels commit”, including American soldiers apparently raping Afghan women. Hoax videos of this kind can be found in bazaars in northwest Pakistan, where last week a 12-year-old boy in school uniform blew himself up, killing 31 army recruits.
For five months, Ehsar’s teachers lectured him and 20 other students on the morally corrupting influence of foreigners. They told him that the infidels had come to destroy Islam.
“They show Indian movies on television, girls in Kabul wear jeans, men shave their beards and grow their hair like foreigners,” said Ehsar, now 15. “This is not the right way.”
Three months into his education, Ehsar began to learn how to lay the home-made bombs responsible for most deaths of British and American soldiers in Afghanistan. He was taught how to connect the wires and the battery pack, where to place the mines and how to conceal them when travelling on foot or by motorcycle.
Ehsar was soon sent on missions with the more experienced bombers. “We usually go at night but sometimes we can get away with it during the day,” he said, claiming that his mines have killed 10 American soldiers in the past year. “The Americans don’t suspect us. We’re children. That’s why we’re used. From the air, it looks like we’re normal madrasah students collecting charity from the people.”
Another young layer of IEDs, a 14-year-old boy identified only as Abdullah, from Jagatu district, said the Taliban used children because they wanted to protect veteran fighters. “Our life is not important compared with the older Taliban fighters. They have families to feed,” he said.
Abdullah said he was initially blackmailed into becoming a mine-layer. His teachers told him that if he refused to go on missions, they would beat him and expel him from the madrasah.
“I didn’t want to stop my religious studies. I’d made good friends there and I didn’t want to lose them,” he said. “I didn’t want to kill people to begin with but I had no choice.”
Abdullah soon realised the importance of his work, he said. He began to volunteer for missions. “The Americans are the enemy of Islam,” he explained. “They kill our people and they want to destroy our religion. It’s our duty to kill them.”
Human rights groups blame the Taliban for the majority of civilian deaths. Last year, the bloodiest for civilians since the war began, the Taliban and other insurgent groups killed 63% of the 2,421 civilians who died violently, according to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an independent watchdog. IEDs alone killed 690 civilians.
Nato says the Taliban pay boys to plant IEDs, earning them the nickname “the $10-Taliban”. But both boys denied receiving payment. “We get expenses for things like motorcycle fuel and phone credit,” said Ehsar. “Why do we need money?”
Last summer, during a Nato offensive to reclaim control of Kandahar province, drones spotted children as young as seven running onto the battlefield to collect weapons from the bodies. Photographs seized from Taliban compounds showed boys brandishing assault rifles and rocketpropelled grenades.
In January, American helicopter pilots spotted what they assumed was a Taliban fighter picking up a rifle from the body of a comrade killed in an air-strike. The Apache gunship pilots opened fire, shooting the fighter in the head. Soldiers sent in to assess the damage discovered he was aged between 11 and 14. Last Monday in Kandahar, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a customs post, killing a retired American customs official. The bomber was aged between 10 and 14, according to Nato officials.
Ehsar said there were 10 other children aged 13, 14 and 15 in his madrasah who take it in turns to lay IEDs. “We’re all proud of what we do. The other fighters give us lots of respect and encouragement,” he boasted. “They call us their little killing machines.”
• Taliban fighters stormed the Kandahar police headquarters yesterday, killing at least 21 people and wounding dozens.