June 21, 2011 — -- A 17-year-old died this week in Afghanistan, hanging from the end of a rope. A prison official fastened it around the boy's neck in Kabul's largest jail, tightened the knot, and then, in front of a crowd, removed the platform that held up the boy's feet.
He was hanged by the Afghan government because he was a killer. In February, Zar Ajam put on a suicide vest and a police officer's uniform. He picked up an AK-47, walked into the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad and started shooting. Forty people were dead by the time he took off his suicide vest and walked out, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the crowd of victims.
Zar Ajam might sound cold-blooded; he might sound evil.
But consider that Ajam, a Pakistani from North Waziristan, left school when he was seven years old. He didn't know how to read or write. He worked as a day laborer and had little to no economic future. That made him easy prey for his Taliban teachers.
He believed them when they said the people banking in Jalalabad were foreigners because he'd never seen a foreigner before. He believed them when he visited the bank during a dry run and his teachers told him foreigners were so scared of the Taliban, they wore local clothes and spoke Pashto, the local language. He believed them because he knew no better.
Two months ago, in an interview with ABC News from prison, Zar Ajam said he would never do what he did again -- because he knew better, now.
But he also said he accepted his punishment. He accepted responsibility. He never got a chance to apologize to the families of those he killed.
"When police arrested they put me in a room. The window was open and I heard the prayer call and I saw a person in a police uniform praying – and it was then I realized the people I killed were Muslim," Ajam said in the long, somber interview, during which one of his guards hovered a few feet away. "It was like I woke up and I realized that I have killed innocent people."
It is far too simple to suggest that Ajam became a terrorist because he was poor and uneducated. Millions of boys grow up in the impoverished, rugged tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border and never choose to join the Taliban. Some studies suggest that poorer Pakistanis are actually less likely to support extremism.
But Zar Ajam's story reveals just how easily boys from that area can become militants. It reveals just how many boys are willing to become suicide bombers, how they are passed from one militant commander to another, and how easily they can be sent to Afghanistan.
Perhaps more than anything, his story is a warning that, despite military advances in Afghanistan and advances in pinpoint targeting in Pakistan, defeating the Taliban may require reducing their pool of recruits by improving the lives of those living on the border.