by Ed West
Tuesday, 17
August 2021

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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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