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Afghanistan’s ‘Disposable Sons’

18 settembre 2009

NATO is helpless against the country’s youth bulge.
– The Wall Street Journal

To understand why the U.S. and NATO—after eight years of hard fighting—face mounting losses in Afghanistan, we must look beyond the battlefield.

Afghanistan has been at war or civil war since 1979. With a tiny population of 15 million, it fought a bloody struggle against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Treaty allies, which had a combined population of 450 million. While the Russians lost some 15,000 men, Afghanistan suffered more than a million dead. In the years that followed, Afghanistan was never at peace as new combatants, foreign and domestic, battled for control of the country. And yet as the U.S. and other NATO countries approach their ninth year of war in this forbidding land, Afghanistan today has many more men of military age than it did in 1978.

How can a politically divided population of today 33 million provide enough fighters to resist the NATO countries, which have a combined population of nearly one billion? How can the Afghans challenge such military behemoths? Or, to put it differently, why do Russia and NATO win easily against mini-powers such as Georgia or Serbia, but find it hard to defeat mini-powers such as Chechnya or Afghanistan? What do the Afghans have that both the other mini-powers and the big powers are lacking? The answer is in the dynamics of a rapidly growing population.

Decade after decade, the women of Afghanistan have been averaging three to four sons each. This means even if an Afghan family loses two or more boys on the battlefield—”disposable sons”—it still has one or two male offsprings at home to carry the family into the next generation. Russian soldiers in 1979, however, were likely to be only sons. Statistically, that is also true for American soldiers in 2009, and is true as well for the soldiers of Serbia and Georgia that have quickly shrinking and ageing populations.

If an only son falls in battle, a family is demographically crippled, or left with no future at all. Each death brings unbearable pain, and calls for withdrawal from the war. Afghanistan, in other words, can take heavy losses in combat and continue to grow. If demographics are destiny, then Afghanistan is destined to prevail.

Today, every 1,000 Afghan men aged 40 to 44 will be succeeded by more than 4,000 boys aged 0 to 4. In the U.S., there are only 980 boys per 1,000 men. In the U.K. the ratio is 670 per 1,000 and in Germany, which is committing demographic suicide, the ratio is 470 boys to 1,000 men.

In 1979, the Russian army faced 2.5 million Afghan males at the traditional fighting ages of 15 to 29. Some 1.7 million of those Afghan males were second, third or fourth sons. They were surely loved by their parents but the family’s property was inherited only by the oldest son. Younger sons had to struggle hard to find their places in society and—with decent jobs hard to find—could be easily recruited by militant groups. In 1979, 3.5 million Afghan boys still younger than 15 when the Soviet Union attacked were getting ready for just such a fight.

This endless supply of angry, ambitious young Afghan men never appeared on Russian radar. Yet it eventually forced them to give up the war and go home. Afghanistan was down to 13 million inhabitants.

In 2009, the situation is even more volatile. Today there are 4.2 million Afghan males aged 15 to 29 out of a total population of 33 million. Two and half million may conclude that violence offers their only chance for a successful future. Are these men on the radar screen of the 65.000 soldiers of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force? Is NATO/ISAF aware that 6.7 million Afghan boys under 15 are getting ready for battle? In Afghanistan, 45% of all males are younger than 15 versus 21% in the U.S., 18% in the U.K. and 14% in Germany.

Nearly half a million reach military age every year. Close to 300,000 of them may be tempted by Taliban tales of victory or heroic death. When it comes to high-tech weapons, ISAF has the advantage. But when it comes to “disposable sons”—the ultimate weapon of war—the ratio between Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF is four million to zero in favor of Afghanistan.

By working hard to arm and train Afghan police officers and soldiers, ISAF demonstrates that it is not ignorant of its demographic odds. Thus, the Western nations try to turn the international war, for which they do not have enough manpower, back into a civil war in which it will fall on the Afghans themselves to consume recent and coming youth bulges. The West does not count on the bloodshed ending soon. Yet, they hope to get their own men out of harms way as well as out of the danger to be accused of crimes of war or crimes against humanity. M

Mr. Heinsohn heads the Raphael Lemkin Institute at the University of Bremen, Europe’s first institute devoted to comparative genocide research.


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