Why the U.S. Spent Billions on an Army that Conscripted Child Soldiers

Was that in the “national interest of the United States?”

Nick Turse

Soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army redeploy in 2008. (United Nations Photo / Flickr)

This arti­cle was orginal­ly pub­lished on TomDis​patch​.com.

While child soldiers remained in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the U.S. nonetheless engaged in a years-long effort to pour billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance, into South Sudan.

MALAKAL, South Sudan — I didn’t real­ly think he was going to shoot me. There was no anger in his eyes. His fin­ger may not have been any­where near the trig­ger. He didn’t draw a bead on me. Still, he was a boy and he was hold­ing an AK-47 and it was point­ed in my direction. 

It was unnerving.

I don’t know how old he was. I’d say 16, though maybe he was 18 or 19. But there were a few sol­diers near­by who looked even younger — no more than 15.

When I was their age, I wasn’t trust­ed to dri­ve, vote, drink, get mar­ried, gam­ble in a casi­no, serve on a jury, rent a car, or buy a tick­et to an R‑rated movie. It was manda­to­ry for me to be in school. The law decreed just how many hours I could work and pro­hib­it­ed my employ­ment in jobs deemed too dan­ger­ous for kids — like oper­at­ing mix­ing machines in bak­eries or repair­ing ele­va­tors. No one, I can say with some cer­tain­ty, would have thought it a good idea to put an auto­mat­ic weapon in my hands. But some­one thought it was accept­able for them. A lot of some­ones actu­al­ly. Their gov­ern­ment — the gov­ern­ment of South Sudan — appar­ent­ly thought so. And so did mine, the gov­ern­ment of the Unit­ed States. 

Pho­to Bomb

There was a rea­son that boy point­ed his weapon my way. A lot of them, in fact. In the most imme­di­ate sense, I brought it upon myself. I was doing some­thing I knew could get me in trou­ble, but I just couldn’t help myself. 

I tried to take a pic­ture. Okay, I took a pic­ture. More than one.

Malakal air­field, July 2014.

Pub­lic pho­tog­ra­phy is fre­quent­ly frowned upon in South Sudan. Take pic­tures of the wrong thing and the author­i­ties might force you to delete the images, or con­fis­cate your cam­era, or maybe worse.

The inci­dent in ques­tion took place dur­ing last year’s rainy sea­son on the out­skirts of sod­den Malakal, a war-rav­aged town 320 miles north of the cap­i­tal, Juba. The air­port, near the banks of the White Nile, had devolved into an airstrip. Nobody seemed to use its vin­tage blue and white ter­mi­nal build­ing any­more. Instead, you drove past cold-eyed Rwan­dan peace­keep­ers, Unit­ed Nations troop trucks, and an armored per­son­nel car­ri­er or two, right up to the tarmac.

That’s where I was when a fair­ly big, non­de­script white plane arrived. That in itself was hard­ly remark­able. It’s de rigueur for Malakal. If it isn’t a World Food Pro­gram flight, then it’s a big-bel­lied plane haul­ing in sup­plies for some non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion or a Unit­ed Nations plane like the one that brought me there and that I was wait­ing for to whisk me away.

This non­de­script white plane, how­ev­er, was dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers. When the Canadair CRJ-100, with Cemairwrit­ten across its tail, tax­ied up and its door opened, it wasn’t your typ­i­cal array of air­line pas­sen­gers who sal­lied down the gang­way. At least not at first. It was a large group of young men in cam­ou­flage uni­forms car­ry­ing assault rifles and machine guns. And they were met on the run­way by scores of sim­i­lar­ly attired, sim­i­lar­ly armed young men who had arrived in a con­voy just min­utes earlier. 

I’d nev­er seen any­thing like it, so I pulled out my phone and tried to sur­rep­ti­tious­ly take a few pho­tos. Not sur­rep­ti­tious­ly enough, though. A com­man­der spot­ted me, got angry, and head­ed my way, wav­ing his fin­ger no.” It was then that this boy with the AK-47, who had arrived in the con­voy, turned toward me — fol­low­ing the officer’s gaze — and the rifle in his arms turned with him, and I stepped live­ly to put the com­man­der between me and him, while quick­ly shov­ing my phone in my pock­et and apol­o­giz­ing again and again.

Malakal air­field, July 2014.

Approx­i­mate­ly 13,000 chil­dren have been recruit­ed into armed groups in South Sudan, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In addi­tion, about 400,000 young­sters have been forced out of school due to the civ­il war that has been flar­ing and sim­mer­ing there for almost a year and a half. How so many chil­dren came to be affect­ed by the con­flict and why so many of them find them­selves serv­ing in the nation­al army, the main rebel force, and oth­er mili­tias needs to be explained. It has much to do with civ­il wars that start­ed in the 1950s and last­ed for the bet­ter part of five decades, pit­ting rebels in the south against the gov­ern­ment in the north of what was then a sin­gle coun­try: Sudan. 

Oth­er fac­tors include the 2005 peace deal that led to an inde­pen­dent South Sudan and trans­formed a guer­ril­la force into a nation­al mil­i­tary, the Sudan People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army or SPLA; a rur­al cul­ture in which cows are king because they are cur­ren­cy and young boys are armed to defend against cat­tle raids, as well as to con­duct them; and an armed grudge match between polit­i­cal rivals rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent trib­al groups in South Sudan that began in Decem­ber 2013. Add all of this togeth­er and any tan­gi­ble recent progress toward rid­ding South Sudan of the scourge of child sol­diers has been obliterated. 

Oh yes, and into that mix you would also have to fac­tor the Unit­ed States, a coun­try that, as then U.S. Sen­a­tor, now Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry put it, helped mid­wife” South Sudan into existence.

America’s African Army

In 1996, the Unit­ed States began fun­nel­ing mil­i­tary equip­ment through near­by Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Ugan­da to rebels in south­ern Sudan as they bat­tled for inde­pen­dence. A decade lat­er, after the civ­il war end­ed in a peace deal, Wash­ing­ton offi­cial­ly began offer­ing mil­i­tary assis­tance” to the SPLA, accord­ing to State Depart­ment doc­u­ments. At that point, with­out fan­fare and far from the pry­ing eyes of the press, the U.S. launched a con­cert­ed cam­paign to trans­form the SPLA from a guer­ril­la force into a pro­fes­sion­al army. 

When I recent­ly asked about the scope of this train­ing, Rod­ney Ford, the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs spokesper­son, told me: The U.S. gov­ern­ment began a com­pre­hen­sive defense pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion pro­gram which start­ed in [fis­cal year] 2006 [and] con­tin­ued after the ref­er­en­dum and inde­pen­dence of South Sudan until Decem­ber 2013. This assis­tance includ­ed infra­struc­ture, vehi­cles, human rights train­ing, logis­tics, admin­is­tra­tion, med­ical, mil­i­tary jus­tice, finance, and Eng­lish lan­guage train­ing among an array of oth­er mil­i­tary sub­jects. The U.S. gov­ern­ment, for exam­ple, con­duct­ed a com­pre­hen­sive med­ical pro­gram with the South Sudanese mil­i­tary which entailed procur­ing mobile field hos­pi­tals, build­ing clin­ics, train­ing nurs­es and improv­ing the military’s med­ical infrastructure.”

Ford also empha­sized that no lethal equip­ment” was pro­vid­ed and not­ed that the lessons were designed to give sol­diers the tools and skills that would ben­e­fit the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion.” It sound­ed almost like they were build­ing a South Sudanese Peace Corps. 

In real­i­ty, there was more to it. U.S. sup­port was not strict­ly a kum­baya effort of med­ical clin­ics and human rights instruc­tion. It includ­ed the train­ing and equip­ping of the elite pres­i­den­tial guard; the con­struc­tion of a new SPLA head­quar­ters in Juba; the ren­o­va­tion of a train­ing cen­ter at the SPLA Com­mand and Staff Col­lege in Mal­ou, a town north of the cap­i­tal; and the con­struc­tion of the head­quar­ters of two SPLA divi­sions in the towns of Mapel and Duar. Includ­ed as well were train­ing pro­grams for gen­er­al offi­cers and senior instruc­tors; the deploy­ment of a train­ing advi­so­ry team” to guide the over­haul of intel­li­gence, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and oth­er key func­tions; the employ­ment of Kenyan and lat­er Ethiopi­an instruc­tors to teach basic mil­i­tary skills to SPLA recruits; the pro­vi­sion of secure voice and data com­mu­ni­ca­tions to SPLA gen­er­al head­quar­ters; the devel­op­ment of river­ine forces and up to 16 tac­ti­cal water­craft; mil­i­tary police instruc­tion; the train­ing of com­man­do forces by Ethiopi­an troops; and the estab­lish­ment of a non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers acad­e­my at Mapel with train­ing from pri­vate con­trac­tors and lat­er U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel. And accord­ing to a com­pre­hen­sive report focus­ing on the years 2006 – 2010 by Richard Rands for the Small Arms Sur­vey at the Grad­u­ate Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al and Devel­op­ment Stud­ies in Gene­va, this list only encom­pass­es part of Washington’s efforts. 

Dur­ing the ear­ly 2000s, as thou­sands of refugee Lost Boys” who had fled the civ­il war in south­ern Sudan began to be reset­tled in cities across the Unit­ed States, their broth­ers and sis­ters back home con­tin­ued to suf­fer as civil­ians or as child com­bat­ants. Between 2001 and 2006, how­ev­er, as inter­na­tion­al pres­sure mount­ed and the civ­il war waned, some 20,000 child sol­diers were also report­ed­ly demo­bi­lized by the SPLA, although thou­sands remained in the force for a vari­ety of rea­sons, includ­ing an extreme lack of oth­er opportunities. 

By 2010, when the SPLA pledged to demo­bi­lize all of its child sol­diers by the end of the year, there were an esti­mat­ed 900 chil­dren still serv­ing in the force. The next year, under terms of the agree­ment that end­ed the civ­il war, the peo­ple of south­ern Sudan vot­ed for their inde­pen­dence. Six months lat­er, on July 9th, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation, prompt­ing a strong state­ment of sup­port from Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma: I am con­fi­dent that the bonds of friend­ship between South Sudan and the Unit­ed States will only deep­en in the years to come. As South­ern Sudanese under­take the hard work of build­ing their new coun­try, the Unit­ed States pledges our part­ner­ship as they seek the secu­ri­ty, devel­op­ment, and respon­sive gov­er­nance that can ful­fill their aspi­ra­tions and respect their human rights.”

While child sol­diers, in fact, remained in the SPLA, the U.S. nonethe­less engaged in a years-long effort to pour bil­lions of dol­lars in human­i­tar­i­an aid, as well as hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty assis­tance, into South Sudan. Here’s the catch in all this: the Child Sol­diers Pre­ven­tion Act (CSPA), passed by Con­gress in 2008 and enact­ed in 2010, pro­hibits the Unit­ed States from pro­vid­ing mil­i­tary assis­tance to gov­ern­ments using child sol­diers. This means that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion should have been barred from pro­vid­ing South Sudan with mil­i­tary assis­tance in 2011. The gov­ern­ment, how­ev­er, relied on a tech­ni­cal­i­ty to gain an exemp­tion — claim­ing the list of barred coun­tries was cre­at­ed before the new nation for­mal­ly came into existence.

Washington’s sup­port for the SPLA con­tin­ued even as mili­tia groups with chil­dren under arms were fold­ed into the force. The U.S. flung open the doors of advanced U.S. mil­i­tary schools, train­ing cen­ters, col­leges, and uni­ver­si­ties to SPLA per­son­nel. In 2010 and 2011, for exam­ple, U.S. tax­pay­ers foot­ed the bill for some of them to attend U.S. mil­i­tary armor, artillery, intel­li­gence, and infantry schools; in 2012 and 2013, it was the Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty, the U.S. Army’s Com­mand and Gen­er­al Staff Col­lege, the Marine Corps Com­bat Ser­vice Sup­port School, and the Naval Post Grad­u­ate School in Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia, among oth­er institutions. 

Accord­ing to the State Department’s 2013 Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, tens of mil­lions of dol­lars were also ear­marked for refur­bish­ment, oper­a­tions, and main­te­nance of train­ing cen­ters and divi­sion­al head­quar­ters; strate­gic and oper­a­tional advi­so­ry assis­tance; unit and indi­vid­ual pro­fes­sion­al train­ing; and com­mu­ni­ca­tions and oth­er non-lethal equip­ment for the mil­i­tary.” All of it, accord­ing to offi­cial State Depart­ment doc­u­ments, was designed to pro­mote a mil­i­tary that is pro­fes­sion­al­ly trained and led, eth­i­cal­ly bal­anced, aware of moral imper­a­tives, and able to con­tribute pos­i­tive­ly to nation­al and South-South reconciliation.” 

At the same time it was attempt­ing to trans­form the SPLA into a nation­al army, the U.S. mil­i­tary began oper­at­ing from an out­post in South Sudan’s hin­ter­lands. At a Com­bined Oper­a­tions Fusion Cen­ter in Nzara, a small con­tin­gent of U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces worked with South Sudanese mil­i­tary intel­li­gence as part of Obser­vant Com­pass, an oper­a­tion focused on degrad­ing or destroy­ing Joseph Kony’s mur­der­ous Lord’s Resis­tance Army (LRA). Planes and heli­copters, flown by pri­vate con­trac­tors, fer­ried U.S. troops in and out of the small camp. It was also used by spe­cial ops per­son­nel for train­ing SPLA forces in every­thing from nav­i­ga­tion skills to air­mo­bile heli­copter assaults and as a stag­ing area for joint raids against the LRA in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go. Until just weeks before the civ­il war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tors were con­duct­ing mil­i­tary assault drills at Nzara.

As the Unit­ed States was pour­ing mon­ey and effort into build­ing up the country’s armed forces, human rights groups repeat­ed­ly com­plained about its military’s use of chil­dren. This isn’t to say that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion turned a blind eye to the prac­tice. It was, in fact, much worse than that. 

On Sep­tem­ber 28, 2012, for exam­ple, Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of State for African Affairs John­nie Car­son issued a strong state­ment against the use of chil­dren as com­bat­ants. Pro­tect­ing and assist­ing chil­dren affect­ed by armed con­flict and pre­vent­ing abus­es against them is a pri­or­i­ty for the Unit­ed States,” he announced. We remain com­mit­ted to end­ing the unlaw­ful recruit­ment and use of child sol­diers, includ­ing in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go (DRC).” Car­son went on to note that, adher­ing to pro­vi­sions of the Child Sol­diers Pre­ven­tion Act, the U.S. would indeed with­hold cer­tain secu­ri­ty assis­tance to the DRC (though not all of it). 

That same day, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma issued a state­ment of his own, waiv­ing the appli­ca­tion of the Child Sol­diers Pre­ven­tion Act with respect to sev­er­al nations (as the act indeed allows a pres­i­dent to do). South Sudan was includ­ed on the grounds that such a deci­sion was in the nation­al inter­est of the Unit­ed States.” It was not, as it hap­pens, in the inter­est of the chil­dren of South Sudan, not at least accord­ing to a senior Unit­ed Nations offi­cial who was not autho­rized to speak on the record. The U.S. waiv­er was doing more harm than good because there is absolute­ly no polit­i­cal will to solve the child sol­dier prob­lem,” that offi­cial explained to me.

In Sep­tem­ber 2013, Oba­ma issued still anoth­er CSPA waiv­er — in the form of a mem­o­ran­dum to Sec­re­tary of State Ker­ry — keep­ing South Sudan eli­gi­ble for U.S. mil­i­tary assis­tance and the licens­es need­ed to buy mil­i­tary equip­ment, again cit­ing nation­al interest. 

By the end of the year, South Sudan had col­lapsed into civ­il war with many SPLA sol­diers, espe­cial­ly those of the Din­ka tribe, remain­ing loy­al to Pres­i­dent Sal­va Kiir’s gov­ern­ment and oth­ers, pre­dom­i­nant­ly of Nuer eth­nic­i­ty, join­ing for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Riek Machar’s rebel forces. Mem­bers of the SPLA were almost imme­di­ate­ly impli­cat­ed in mass atroc­i­ties, includ­ing the killing of Nuer civil­ians. That pres­i­den­tial guard, trained and equipped by the U.S. a few years ear­li­er, was espe­cial­ly sin­gled out for its bru­tal crimes. 

Machar’s oppo­si­tion forces, includ­ing many Nuers for­mer­ly with the SPLA, car­ried out their own atroc­i­ties, includ­ing large-scale mas­sacres of Din­ka civil­ians and oth­ers. The State Depart­ment soon issued a report, indig­nant over the fact that since the out­break of con­flict on Decem­ber 15, [2013] there have been reports of forced con­scrip­tion by gov­ern­ment forces and recruit­ment and use of child sol­diers by both gov­ern­ment and antigov­ern­ment forces” — pre­cise­ly the behav­ior the pres­i­dent had told the sec­re­tary of state was in the Amer­i­can nation­al inter­est just a few months earlier. 

The Kids Aren’t All Right

We worked close­ly with the SPLA to make sure the elim­i­na­tion of child sol­diers or chil­dren asso­ci­at­ed with the mil­i­tary was a high pri­or­i­ty,” a State Depart­ment offi­cial explained to me in a recent email. Right before the out­break of the most recent con­flict the U.N. had stat­ed that there were no more child sol­diers’ in the South Sudanese mil­i­tary though some still remained on SPLA bar­racks cook­ing and clean­ing, etc.” 

That’s not quite how the Unit­ed Nations actu­al­ly put it.

Before the civ­il war erupt­ed, the Unit­ed Nations ver­i­fied the recruit­ment and use of 162 chil­dren, all boys and most­ly between 14 and 17 years of age,” 99 of whom were with the SPLA, 35 with a mili­tia allied to a com­man­der named David Yau Yau, 25 asso­ci­at­ed with the Lou Nuer tribe, and three with South Sudan’s nation­al police. Chil­dren asso­ci­at­ed with SPLA were iden­ti­fied in mil­i­tary bar­racks, wear­ing SPLA uni­forms as well as under­go­ing mil­i­tary train­ing in con­flict areas,” accord­ing to the Office of the Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al for Chil­dren and Armed Con­flict. In addi­tion, reports of the recruit­ment and use of 133 chil­dren were pend­ing ver­i­fi­ca­tion at the time of reporting.”

Since Decem­ber 2013, the sit­u­a­tion has become far worse. We have been deeply dis­ap­point­ed to see the progress South Sudan had achieved toward end­ing the unlaw­ful recruit­ment and use of child sol­diers since inde­pen­dence so grave­ly set back by the con­flict that erupt­ed in Decem­ber,” U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil spokesman Ned Price told me last year. Both gov­ern­ment-aligned and rebel forces have recruit­ed and used child sol­diers in the cur­rent con­flict, and we call on both sides to end this practice.” 

By May 2014, UNICEF esti­mat­ed that 9,000 chil­dren had been recruit­ed into the armed forces of both sides in the civ­il war, despite the fact that under both inter­na­tion­al and South Sudanese law, the forcible or vol­un­tary recruit­ment of per­sons under the age of 18, whether as a mem­ber of a reg­u­lar army or of an infor­mal mili­tia, is pro­hib­it­ed.” Today, that num­ber is esti­mat­ed to have grown to 13,000.

About a year ago, Machar’s SPLA-In Oppo­si­tion (SPLA-IO) pledged to end the recruit­ment of child sol­diers. In late June, accord­ing to the U.N., Kiir’s gov­ern­ment agreed to restart the imple­men­ta­tion of the Action Plan signed in 2012 to end and pre­vent the recruit­ment and use of chil­dren by the Sudan People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army.” 

There’s lit­tle evi­dence, how­ev­er, that this has trans­lat­ed into tan­gi­ble effects on the ground on either side. Despite renewed promis­es by both gov­ern­ment and oppo­si­tion forces that they will stop using child sol­diers, both sides con­tin­ue to recruit and use chil­dren in com­bat,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa direc­tor at Human Rights Watch (HRW), ear­li­er this year. In Malakal, gov­ern­ment forces are even tak­ing chil­dren from right out­side the Unit­ed Nations compound.”

A well-placed source with­in the Unit­ed Nations offered a sim­i­lar assess­ment. Even though the SPLA re-com­mit­ted in June of last year, they haven’t released many kids — only a hand­ful,” he explained. The SPLA aren’t releas­ing their kids and there doesn’t seem to be any incen­tive to do so.” 

Skye Wheel­er, an expert on South Sudan at Human Rights Watch, agrees that the gov­ern­ment hasn’t done much. The SPLA is entire­ly aware that at least two for­mer mili­ti­a­men who are now fight­ing with the gov­ern­ment and who have both been inte­grat­ed into the army are using and recruit­ing numer­ous child sol­diers but have not made any sig­nif­i­cant steps towards puni­tive action,” she told me recent­ly by email. She added that she also knows of no sig­nif­i­cant efforts to curb the recruit­ment of chil­dren by Machar’s SPLA-IO. 

Last fall, U.S. Ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations Saman­tha Pow­er chaired a meet­ing of the U.N. Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil on chil­dren and armed con­flict in which she declared: Per­pe­tra­tors have to be held account­able. Groups that fail to change their behav­ior must be hit where it hurts.” A State Depart­ment offi­cial who refused to be named for this piece was equal­ly unequiv­o­cal when it came to South Sudan. Since the out­break of the con­flict, there have been no waivers issued,” he told me in late March, and we have expressed our con­cerns about the recruit­ment of chil­dren by mul­ti­ple par­ties in the cur­rent con­flict.” But months ear­li­er — just weeks after Power’s pro­nounce­ment and near­ly a year after the civ­il war in South Sudan began — Pres­i­dent Oba­ma had indeed issued anoth­er par­tial waiv­er allow­ing con­tin­ued sup­port for the coun­try, despite the pro­hi­bi­tions of the Child Sol­diers Pre­ven­tion Act. 

When I asked about this dis­crep­an­cy, the State Depart­ment back­tracked, admit­ting that the pres­i­dent had autho­rized a par­tial waiv­er of the appli­ca­tion of the pro­hi­bi­tion in sec­tion 404(a) of the CSPA with respect to South Sudan to allow for the pro­vi­sion of PKO assis­tance,” cit­ing a pro­vi­sion of the act and refer­ring to PKO, or peace­keep­ing,” fund­ing long used to train and equip the SPLA. In this instance, the offi­cial insist­ed that none of the funds rel­e­vant to this par­tial waiv­er have been used to pro­vide any direct assis­tance to the SPLA.” 

Andy Bur­nett, a spokesper­son from the Office of the Spe­cial Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, then went fur­ther. Just to apol­o­gize, the word­ing on our response back [to you] was con­fus­ing,” he told me. We were speak­ing about waivers that had been done as in the past — relat­ed to capac­i­ty build­ing and assis­tance for the SPLA. This par­tial waiv­er was done with a more nar­row intent.”

In fact, the way that waiv­er was issued did not sit well with some. We were dis­ap­point­ed that a par­tial waiv­er was put in place last year again with­out a clear and pub­lic state­ment by the [U.S. gov­ern­ment] that this was pure­ly to allow cer­tain activ­i­ties (sup­port to IGAD mon­i­tors and anti-LRA activ­i­ties) and that the gov­ern­ment would not be receiv­ing any sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary sup­port until the abus­es, includ­ing use and recruit­ment of child sol­diers, are prop­er­ly addressed,” HRW’s Skye Wheel­er told me. She was refer­ring to the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Author­i­ty on Development’s Mon­i­tor­ing and Ver­i­fi­ca­tion Mech­a­nism for South Sudan, set up in Jan­u­ary 2014 to sup­port medi­a­tion of the cur­rent civ­il war. 

The State Depart­ment acknowl­edged the absence of such a dec­la­ra­tion, but empha­sized that the Unit­ed States had expressed its con­cern” about the issue to Kiir’s gov­ern­ment. Asked about South Sudan’s response to those con­cerns, Bur­nett fog­gi­ly replied that there were dif­fer­ences of opin­ion about the extent to which [recruit­ment of chil­dren by the SPLA] is hap­pen­ing; argu­ments that when it’s hap­pen­ing it’s done by the oppo­si­tion or oth­er armed groups that are out­side of [SPLA] con­trol.” In oth­er words, after years of copi­ous aid, effort, and waivers, the U.S. can’t even get the gov­ern­ment of South Sudan to acknowl­edge its wrong­do­ing when it comes to recruit­ing child fight­ers, let alone halt it.

Toy Guns, Real Guns, and Nation­al Interests

The war in South Sudan has been a night­mare for chil­dren. UNICEF esti­mates that 600,000 have been affect­ed by psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress, 235,000 are at risk of severe acute mal­nu­tri­tion this year, and 680 have been killed. Moth­ers are bury­ing their chil­dren… the lev­el of slaugh­ter, of inno­cent vic­tims, inno­cent civil­ians, is sim­ply unac­cept­able by any stan­dard what­so­ev­er,” Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry recent­ly told South Sudan’s Eye Radio in scold­ing remarks. The lead­ers of South Sudan’s war­ring par­ties Sal­va Kiir, the pres­i­dent, and Riek Machar… need to come to their sens­es,” he said. They need to sign an agree­ment that’s real and they need to stop allow­ing the peo­ple to be the vic­tims of their pow­er strug­gle.” On one thing Ker­ry was adamant: We need to have account­abil­i­ty as this goes forward.”

But what about U.S. account­abil­i­ty? Does the Unit­ed States, after years of waivers, bear a respon­si­bil­i­ty for help­ing to entrench South Sudan’s prac­tice of using child sol­diers? In and of itself, it could be per­ceived as sanc­tion­ing the prac­tice, but in the day-to-day real­i­ty of engag­ing, we were a strong advo­cate for mov­ing beyond the prac­tices that had been his­tor­i­cal­ly tak­ing place and remov­ing any child sol­diers with­in the SPLA,” says Andy Bur­nett. I’m not say­ing we deserve full cred­it,” he told me, even as he argued that the president’s waivers had led to real progress.

What­ev­er progress might have been made before the civ­il war, as he read­i­ly admit­ted, was soon oblit­er­at­ed. So was the U.S. train­ing effort in South Sudan a fail­ure? After a wall of words about the dif­fi­cul­ties involved in cre­at­ing an account­able and pro­fes­sion­al armed force” in the avail­able time, Bur­nett took some respon­si­bil­i­ty, even if he care­ful­ly extend­ed the blame to cov­er America’s part­ners in the effort. Yes, that the inter­na­tion­al effort to reform the SPLA was not suc­cess­ful in pre­vent­ing some­thing like this [the split of the SPLA in the war] is quite obvi­ous,” he told me. This admis­sion, how­ev­er, does lit­tle for the chil­dren tot­ing arms now and those who will do so in the years ahead as part of what Bur­nett calls a widen­ing prob­lem of child-sol­dier­ing,” due to even more inci­dences of recruit­ment of chil­dren by armed groups with­in this conflict.”

Young chil­dren with toy guns, Tomp­ing Pro­tec­tion of Civil­ians Site, Juba, South Sudan, July 2014.

Walk­ing through a camp for inter­nal­ly dis­placed per­sons at a U.N. base in South Sudan’s cap­i­tal, Juba, one blaz­ing hot day last sum­mer, I watched a young girl in a bright pink dress and sport­ing a huge smile, and a some­what younger boy in pink shorts and gray san­dals chase each oth­er through the muck. Each of them was hold­ing a tiny, black plas­tic pis­tol and pre­tend­ing to shoot the oth­er, just the type of game I rev­eled in as a boy. 

As they raced around me, splat­ter­ing mud and laugh­ing, how­ev­er, I began to won­der if one day just a few years down the road, she might be pressed into cook­ing or car­ry­ing water for sol­diers and he might find him­self with a real weapon thrust into his hands. It’s a sad fact that, not so many years from now, I might well encounter that young boy — his toy pis­tol exchanged for a real assault rifle — on some out-of-the-way tar­mac in the hin­ter­lands of South Sudan. Should that day ever come, I imag­ine I’ll feel just as unnerved as I did that morn­ing in Malakal when a boy sol­dier turned his weapon in my direc­tion. I’ll then find lit­tle com­fort in Pres­i­dent Obama’s con­tention that look­ing the oth­er way on child sol­diers is in the nation­al inter­est of the Unit­ed States.” And I’m sure I’ll be just as dis­turbed that those inter­ests” — cit­ed by a pres­i­dent who has his own kids—so eas­i­ly trumped the inter­ests of that boy in Malakal and the rest of South Sudan’s children.

Nick Turse, asso­ciate edi­tor of TomDis​patch​.com, is the author of The Com­plex: How the Mil­i­tary Invades Our Every­day Lives (Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books) and a forth­com­ing his­to­ry of U.S. war crimes in Viet­nam, Kill Any­thing That Moves (Metropolitan/​Henry Holt). His web­site is Nick​Turse​.com.
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