The Taliban is 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, according to multiple officials and survivors of such assaults.
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 has 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 United States, Australian and Dutch troops who fought there for years.
"These bacha attacks have fuelled deep mistrust within police ranks," Seddiqullah, a police commander at a checkpoint near the provincial capital Tarin Kot, told AFP.
The insurgents are using boys 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, which banned bacha bazi during its 1996-2001 rule, roundly denied deploying any underage boys for insider attacks.
The Taliban are sending boys - beautiful boys, handsome boys - to penetrate checkpoints and kill, drug and poison policemen.
"We have a special mujahideen brigade for such operations - all grown men with beards," a Taliban spokesman told AFP.
The insurgents have long denied using children in combat, a claim repeatedly debunked by rights groups and the Government.
Survivors of insider attacks who spoke to AFP, including Matiullah, suggest the Taliban is exploiting the institutionalisation of bacha bazi in police ranks for military gain.
Practically all of Uruzgan's 370 local and national police checkpoints have bachas - some up to four - who are illegally recruited not just for sexual companionship but also to bear arms, multiple officials said. Some policemen, they said, demand bachas like a perk of the job, refusing to join outposts where they are not available.
Horrifying abuse at checkpoints makes the boys, many unpaid and unregistered, hungry for revenge and easy prey for Taliban recruitment.
Many who have tried to escape have been dragged back with trumped up charges of Taliban links, two senior provincial judges told AFP.
Boys have also spurred a deadly rivalry between policemen, with officials reporting incidents such as a gunfight this year between two commanders in Gezab district as one accused the other of "stealing" his bacha.
"To restore security in Uruzgan, we will first have to separate policemen from their bachas," one of the judges said. "But if they are told to reform their ways, a common reply is: 'If you force me to abandon my boy lover, I will also abandon the checkpoint'. The Taliban are not blind to notice that this addiction is worse than opium."