by Ed West
Tuesday, 17
August 2021
Explainer
10:29

How high fertility rates drove Afghanistan’s tragedy

State stability can depend on how many young men are in a population
by Ed West
The lads (Photo by Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of the most poignant things about visiting the war memorials that dot rural France is the frequent bracketed (II) or even (III) after a surname, indicating that more than one son died defending their homeland against German aggression. France lost a staggering 1.3-1.4 million men in the conflict but perhaps its trauma was worsened by the country’s low fertility: half that of Britain’s in the late 19th century and 50% lower than Prussia’s. Many lost two or three sons but many more French mothers and fathers would have lost their only boy.

In his work on demography, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, Eric Kaufmann suggested that Soviet defeat in Afghanistan may have tangentially been related to the country’s very low fertility; Russian mothers became a vocal voice against the conflict, unwilling to sacrifice their only son for this dubious adventure. The average Afghan family in contrast had seven or eight children, and Kaufmann argued that lower fertility makes societies far more war-weary.

Afghanistan has now repelled the three greatest empires of the last 200 years, and yet the majority of the country’s population would not even have been alive when the Americans invaded. The median age is just 18, whereas in Britain it is 40 and the US 38. Fighting is very much a young man’s game, and there is huge amount of research linking average age to state stability; Ukraine and Russia might well have gone to war in another age, were the two countries not so old; the reason that the Northern Ireland and Lebanon conflicts haven’t reignited is related to the fact that the populations are so much more ancient than they were in the 1960s and 70s.

Low median age is a product of high fertility, and Afghanistan – with a total fertility rate of 4.3 children per woman – is one of only three countries outside of sub-Saharan Africa in the top 30. That statistic alone ensures future instability and violence is almost inevitable. (And the grim fact about these conflicts is that, young men being involved, sex is often a motivation and reward).

Afghanistan is now an outlier in the Islamic world, where fertility rates have plummeted in the 21st century. This correlates with declining religious belief and observation, although there are exceptions: the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran have long encouraged family planning, aware that a young and growing population would trigger future instability; paradoxically the secular dictatorship in Syria was less keen on smaller families, and TFR was way above 4 well into the 1990s — the generation of men who would come to fight in the civil war.

The aggressors in these conflicts are all men and so are most of the victims — the overwhelming majority of Syrian war casualties have been adult males, including one-third of Alawite men of military age. That is why, despite the misogynistic oppression that characterised the previous Taliban regime, most of the Afghans who take up western offers of asylum will be young men, too.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

YES. This is what dooms Afghanistan, and its neighbors, and if we let it, the West will suffer greatly too, from this. We must be very careful indeed to not let this disaster open our borders to mass migration. The Afghanies are not really that successful as immigrants to the west when in numbers. I would say stick with Hong Kong’ers, and educated Indians, and any with proven records by statistics, and who bring skills or money as well as youth.
Importing this huge problem into the West is a really bad idea. I love Afghanistan, and the intellectual and professional class are fine people in the West, but the unskilled Afghani are not a good fit – this is against every rule of woke to say – but needs saying I believe.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

Yes, at some point procreation becomes a weapon in a war against those trying to impose their culture on you. The Palestinians have used this weapon for years because the only weapon they have is their young people willing to fight for their identity.
In the current issue of Unherd there’s a fine article by Paul Kingsnorth discussing the collapse of societies that have, like the West, lost their motivating religious beliefs. The Afghans still have a strong sense of their own culture, or at least the various tribes within Afghan society strongly believe in their own culture and religious traditions. Imposing a political ideology on them was never going to work.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Instead of imposing a political ideology, we should have promoted contraceptives and mass exposure to the internet.

philipwhittington
philipwhittington
10 months ago

half that of Britain’s in the late 19th century and 50% lower than Prussia’s”
I really like Ed’s output in general, but I think this could be written a bit more clearly. I’m left feeling I don’t quite know the relative levels of birth-rate.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
10 months ago

Perhaps what he really means is “half that of Prussia’s in the late 19th century and 50% lower than Britain’s”.

Last edited 10 months ago by Colin Elliott
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago

Interesting article!

It does make sense that, generally, in a wider sense, demographics and biology drive our actions even though we are led to believe it’s ideology , religion or even education.
However, while the Afghan population is young and most families are large, does that mean the taliban warriors must come from families with sisters, hence there is no skewing of sex ratio. If there is no shortage of girls, it would be unlikely that they are doing this for sex. If they are all Afghani & their families are in Afghanistan, there must be assumed acceptance of the families that the sons can go to war .

Also it is possible, considering the 20yr gap between the previous taliban & the current one, the current regime may not be looking to put the old fear into the population.

What is alarming is that with all the tech and surveillance available, how did US intelligence miss such a wide scale taliban operation in Afghanistan? Was it over the border in Pakistan? Whatever the answers, the sheer oversight in monitoring taliban or Pakistan rests squarely on the US intelligence and the current US government for not being sensitive and incorporating it in its withdrawal policy.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

I do not think you know Afghanistan…

A man is allowed 4 wives. Also – the handing over of girls as payment of disputes has always been the rule there. If one kills another giving a girl to the other family for marriage is actually tribal law. Girls unmarried were always chattel, and were a great value.

“What is alarming is that with all the tech and surveillance available, how did US intelligence miss such a wide scale taliban operation in Afghanistan?”

It did not – the thing is the Westerners did not realize how importing their Gender fetish – the requiring a percent of women to be in the Afghan Army – the requiring women in politics (which is against every tribal rule) forcing Kabul University to teach a degree in gender studies, flying the rainbow flag on the Embassy, the ‘Diversity’ fetish, the sexual Liberal fetishising – this made them despise us – and thus allowed the Taliban back.

Remember – the warlords who ran USSR out were killed by the Taliban with local support because they were sexually abusing boys and girls – this is not different in the minds to what they see as Western Perversions being forced on them – so they again side with the Talib.

The Liberal Woke interfiled in EVERY NGO, and every level of government in the West are why the Women are set back 100 years – you stupid woke feminists have forced your ways on these people, and they rebelled against it, so you did great harm by your stupidity!

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Brilliant observation.
The MSM keep talking about the military success of the Taliban – they talk less about the collapse of confidence in the army and government for the Western values imposed on them.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
10 months ago

The media are quick to talk about ‘intelligence failure’, but the failure is in Western politicians, primarily US, naive enough not to realise that morale is the most important factor in fighting, and also that a collapse in morale can be instant. History is strewn with examples, and British military education emphasises this. I suspect soldiers warned of this, but it’s for the politicians to listen.

Last edited 10 months ago by Colin Elliott
Tim Dilke
Tim Dilke
10 months ago

Much is said about the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan and their prospects under the Taliban. For everyone girl there is a boy. With 40% under the age of 14 there are many. A consequence of the treatment of women and girls is that boys become more vulnerable to the Bacha Bazi tradition of child sexual exploitation and male prostitution. The Taliban have historically opposed this. The current demographics of the country may have an impact on the Taliban’s traditional social attitudes. Either way the prospects for the many children this country are grim.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
10 months ago

Russian mothers became a vocal voice against the conflict, unwilling to sacrifice their only son for this dubious adventure. The average Afghan family in contrast had seven or eight children, and Kaufmann argued that lower fertility makes societies far more war-weary.

Sound simplistic to me. Ideology and values may play a bigger role than the number of children one is willing to sacrifice.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
10 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

A large number of young men isn’t only significant for encouraging mothers to sacrifice them (itself arguable); it means that a ready-made and under-employed gang exists who only need weapons to make them capable of great mischief, and there have always been plenty of guns in Afghanistan.

Niels Georg Bach
Niels Georg Bach
10 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

I remember, that Montgomery, at the battle of Caen,was worried about the worried about the army’s ability to find new soldiers.

Niels Georg Bach
Niels Georg Bach
10 months ago

The young afghan men has been arriving in droves the last years. So we now have the plight of re educating them. It’s not easy, worse now, that we can’t ship the criminals the other way.