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Kids learn hate at Afghan mosque

By Stan Grant, CNN
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Children taught not to like U.S.
  • Previous imam is now in prison after being linked to a Pakistani Taliban network
  • NATO forces have spent a decade trying to battle militant insurgency, win hearts and minds
  • Children yell "No!" to the question of whether they like the United States

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Muslim call to prayer echoes through a poor neighborhood, stirring the faithful. Men shuffle into a tiny mud-and-straw-brick mosque nestled among houses down a dirt lane.

And they bring their sons, clutching tattered copies of the Quran, for lessons in hate at a religious school in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

Outside, day is just breaking. Inside, the boys' heads are bowed. Some clutch prayer beads, as they recite the verses of their holy book.

Slowly the boys fall into a trance-like rhythm, rocking ever harder back and forth. Over and over they will do this, hour after hour.

"There is no God but Allah," they chant.

It is a scene repeated day after day, as it has for centuries. The boys are following a path set by their fathers and their fathers before them.

For many this is their whole world, a world of God and family.

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The men, after a time, peel away to whatever work they have in a country that has been crippled by war and poverty.

The boys remain. Their numbers swell and fill the tiny mosque that now becomes a madrassa -- a religious school.

Their imam -- or teacher -- arrives. A short man with a long beard and piercing gaze, he soon has the boys in his sway. He points and scolds, urging the boys to chant ever louder.

Some begin to beat their chests with fierce devotion. In this way, the imam says the boys will come to memorize the Quran until they can repeat the verses by heart.

"A child is like a tree, it will give fruit. When children come to see me I train them the right way," he tells me.

That way is the way of strict sharia law.

Girls are banned from their school. They tell me women should be behind doors at home. For them to go outside without a veil, they say, is filthy.

The boys are all open, forthright and sure of themselves and their faith. The imam is an approachable man with a gentle smile and soft handshake.

It is typical of such hard-line madrassas -- schools that gave birth to the Taliban have often been a breeding ground for suicide bombers and continue to flourish today.

The message of faith and God is mixed with a hatred of anything outside their own world. The boys have been raised on a steady diet of anti-western propaganda. They are taught to fear outsiders and reject anything but the strict teachings of Islam.

In this world the United States and NATO forces have spent a decade trying to battle militant insurgency and to win hearts and minds.

Part of this mission is to steer impressionable young Muslim minds from the teachings of extremism, but here in this madrassa there is a compelling argument that the mission has failed.

Do you like the United States I ask? There is a resounding "No!"

Do you want them to leave? "Yes!" they yell. "We want our country to be peaceful. They are the devil."

One boy adds: "The Americans are making the Taliban and Afghans fight each other and then they watch. When they see us fighting, Americans are happy."

It's a message they get straight from their teacher, the imam himself.

"God says we can never be friends with unbelievers. What do they know of our religion? We can never be friends," he says.

These boys and their fathers before them have known little but war. There is no doubt they would fight for Islam.

Afghan authorities feared they were being trained to do just that.

Earlier this year, weapons, explosive devices and suicide bomber jackets were uncovered inside.

The previous imam is now in prison, linked to a Pakistani Taliban network.

The current imam refuses to believe it and says his predecessor should be released. The boys also stand by their previous teacher. To them it is all an American conspiracy.

Influenced by whispers, half-truths, suspicion and fear, they spin stories that sound fanciful -- yet what matters is they believe it.

"They kidnap mullahs and take them far away. I have seen on television Americans putting needles into the chests of people and pulling out the other. That's what they are doing to mullahs," one boy says.

With lessons over for the day, the boys fall into the dusty streets. Soon they are playing with a toy gun. They race headlong at our camera pretend firing and making machine gun sounds.

In this way they could be boys in any neighborhood anywhere in the world. Except here war is no game.

These boys, at such a young age, already have an enemy: the United States. Tomorrow at dawn they will be back to that same mosque to hear how God is on their side.