The Taliban are using child sex slaves to mount crippling insider attacks on police in southern Afghanistan, exploiting the pervasive practice of "bacha bazi" -- paedophilic boy play -- to infiltrate security ranks, multiple officials and survivors of such assaults said.
The ancient custom is prevalent across Afghanistan, but nowhere does it seem as entrenched as in the province of Uruzgan, where "bacha bereesh" -- or boys without beards -- widely become objects of lustful attraction for powerful police commanders.
The Taliban over nearly two years have used them to mount a wave of Trojan Horse attacks -- at least six between January and April alone -- that have killed hundreds of policemen, according to security and judicial officials in the province.
"The Taliban are sending boys -- beautiful boys, handsome boys -- to penetrate checkpoints and kill, drug and poison policemen," said Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Lewanai, who was Uruzgan's police chief until he was removed in a security reshuffle in April amid worsening violence.
"They have figured out the biggest weakness of police forces -- bacha bazi," he told AFP.
The assaults, signifying abuse of children by both parties in the conflict, have left authorities rattled, with one senior provincial official who echoed Rogh Lewanai's view saying "it's easier tackling suicide bombers than bacha attackers".
The killings illustrate how bacha bazi is aggravating insecurity in Uruzgan, a remote province which officials warn is teetering on the brink of collapse, unravelling hard-won gains by US, Australian and Dutch troops who fought there for years.
The insurgents are using children as honey traps, said 21-year-old Matiullah, a policeman who was the only survivor from an insider attack in Dehrawud district in spring last year.
He said the attacker was the checkpoint commander's own sex slave, a teenager called Zabihullah. Late one night, he went on a shooting spree, killing seven policemen including the commander as they slept.
"He brought the Taliban inside and poked all the bodies with rifle butts to see if anyone was alive. I pretended to be dead," said Matiullah, who now works as a tailor, pointing out a gash on his forehead.
"As his Taliban accomplices gathered our weapons and ammunition, Zabihullah declared: 'Everyone is dead'."
The Taliban, who banned bacha bazi during their 1996-2001 rule, roundly denied deploying any underage boys for insider attacks.
"We have a special mujahideen brigade for such operations -- all grown men with beards," a Taliban spokesman told AFP.