Slavery is a way of life for the children of Afghanistan. Per the International Organization for Migration, at least a quarter of Afghan children between ages 5 and 14 work in the dangerous roles found in brick kilns, carpet factories, salt and coal mines, metalsmiths and welding works, and more (1). Over 50% of all children are laborers of some sort in Afghanistan, and many work more than 12 hours a day every day. Since the Taliban have come to power, Save the Children estimates that over a million more children have been forced to become laborers just to survive (2), with an estimated 60,000 child laborers existing in Kabul alone (3).
Women and girls bear the brunt of this oppression. Restrictions on women’s right to move about freely that have been imposed by the Taliban greatly contribute to this underground sex trade, with widows and younger women being particularly affected. The situation in Kabul is now comparable to what the world saw in ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria. Despite religious prohibitions on alcohol, AWVV has evidence that women in brothels are frequently forced to drink and are drugged against their will while being violently raped — revealing how concerned the Taliban truly are about abiding by Islamic law. All too frequently, children are forced to work as sex slaves in these brothels.
AWVV’s research reveals that women and young girls also experience forced marriage at an alarming rate under the Taliban. Women are treated as little more than cattle, mere property for the settlement of debts and disputes. They may be bartered away to settle a debt, and men send their daughters and wives as payment to other men with whom they find themselves in civil or criminal disputes. According to the World Health Organization, over 50% of married women in Afghanistan became married as children (1). Between August 2021 and May 2022, nearly 120,000 girls had been sold as child brides, with girls as young as 20 days old being offered up as future brides (4).
When it comes to the sex trafficking of children, AWVV’s research points to crimes by the Taliban that are particularly heinous. Both boys and girls with Hazara, Tajik, and Hindu backgrounds as young as four years old are being targeted by the Taliban for the sex trade. Young boys are increasingly targeted for Bacha Bazi, or “boy play.” This is where the young male child is essentially made into a sex slave for the Taliban (5, 6).
However, this is not the end of the horror for these young men, as the Taliban, like any trafficker, utilize trauma bonding to replenish their own ranks. When the boys become too old to sexually exploit, they are then forced to become child soldiers for the Taliban cartel or their allies across the border in Pakistan. Additionally, we have evidence of widespread kidnappings of Tajik and Hazara boys by the Taliban. These boys are then forcibly dressed in Taliban garb and insignia as child soldiers so that resistance forces target them and are then marched to the front lines to reveal sniper positions upon being shot or to clear mine fields by detonating the explosives with their own bodies. The intent of these kidnappings appears not to be mainly for tactical or strategic objectives, but rather to purposefully decimate the young male fighting population of these specific ethnic groups in acts of genocide.
These trends affect and destabilize the entire region, not just Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban’s trafficking operations are enabled and supported by those in Iran and Pakistan, which benefit from the cheap and abundant source of slave labor that Afghan refugees provide: Nearly 2.4 million Afghans, over a million of whom are undocumented, reside in Pakistan (7), and over 3 million reside in Iran, where over 2.3 million are undocumented (8).
AWVV has evidence that young Afghan girls are trafficked and sold into Iran as brides, while Afghan boys are sold into slavery in both Iran and Pakistan as forced laborers. Afghan women are frequently abducted, raped, and then sex trafficked as prostitutes in Pakistan by the Taliban and their allies, while young Afghan women and teenage girls are frequently abducted from tent encampments in Pakistan and forced into the sex trade. The Taliban also facilitate sex trafficking across borders in the region, with Iranian and Pakistani women frequently being sold into prostitution in Afghanistan, and Iranian women frequently trafficked through Afghanistan to be sold into prostitution or forced marriage in Pakistan. Additionally, AWVV has documented numerous cases of the rape of Afghan children by Iranian border and customs forces, who then turn the children over to the Taliban to be further exploited. Thus, Afghanistan under Taliban rule is little more than the epicenter for slavery and human trafficking across the world.
The Taliban are richly funded from this trade in human beings, which is intricately related to the international drug trade that also finds its nexus in Afghanistan under their rule. Scores of Afghans are compelled by the Taliban to toil in the poppy fields and drug labs in forced labor. Similarly, child soldiers that are conscripted by the Taliban are forced to become addicted to drugs to ensure their loyalty and later serve as suicide bombers. Moreover, youth are frequently forced to serve as drug mules across borders and regions while their families are threatened or even held hostage. This results in the Taliban’s single largest source of funding (9).
Afghanistan is the world’s leading source of opiates, including heroin, which the Taliban exports to its organized crime partners in Russia, Pakistan, and Iran alongside ever-increasing amounts of amphetamines (11). From here, these substances are exported to all corners of the world — into southeast Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the United States, and consequently also fund the atrocities of the Mexican criminal cartels. Approximately three fourths of the world’s opiates are produced in Afghanistan, killing thousands of innocent people every year (10). As mentioned previously, many Afghans are forced against their will to work in the poppy fields and production labs of the Taliban as little more than slaves, demonstrating how the issues of human trafficking and narcotics production are deeply intertwined.