Slow Learners: The Devastating Demographics of Afghanistan

Between 1979 and 1989, 14,500 Soviet invaders died in Afghanistan.  At least 700,000 Afghan warriors and civilians lost their lives in this conflict, yet over the course of the war, the number of young, combat-ready Afghans (ages 15–29) declined by 110,000 (from 1.76 million to 1.65 million).

America should have been warned by the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan.  To their sorrow, the Russians had been exposed to what military analysts call an "asymmetric advantage," an edge on the battlefield that opponents cannot match. 

In the case of Afghanistan, the advantage is demographic. Up to the year 2000, an average Afghan woman gave birth to seven or eight children in her lifetime.  Up to 2020, the average was still five or six.  Therefore, Afghan mothers are able to replace two to three times the number of sons who perish on the battlefield. 

Because they had failed to learn from the Soviet lesson, the Americans and British who bombed al-Qaeda's Afghanistan base in October 2001 were unaware that their target already had 2.7 million young men of military age, one million more than when Moscow had been defeated two decades earlier.  To their peril, they did not take demographics into account.  Students of the author — NATO officers at the Defense College in Rome — repeatedly confirmed with dismay that their nations were as clueless about military demographics as the Kremlin had been before.  They knew about their Afghan adversary's guns and bazookas, but not about his almost limitless ability to absorb casualties.  Now, sadder and perhaps a little wiser, America and the West are following in Russia's footsteps and leaving Afghanistan without victory.

Those who oppose this withdrawal predict that the Taliban will continue its struggle for power more ferociously than before.  And they are right, but for a reason they themselves usually don't mention, if they know it at all.  In July 2021, Afghanistan has nearly six million males of prime fighting age (15–29).  This record number is expected to rise to 7.4 million by 2030.  These fighting-age males will be nearly three times as numerous as they were at the start of the Western intervention in 2001.  No one among the resisters to Trump's and Biden's Afghanistan decisions has ever taken a stand on these crucial demographic facts.  Their startling dimensions are, indeed, more than sufficient to guarantee a future of bloody civil wars in the Hindu Kush.  This huge asymmetric advantage could take an additional toll on any intervention troops that might be deployed there in the future, a toll well beyond ISAF's 3,500 casualties.  Indeed, after the foreseeable fall of the still Western-funded Kabul government, the demographics assure there will be no peace.  At best, we can expect new justifications for civil war and bloodshed.

This is because, even in 2025, Afghanistan's war index — i.e., its demographic capacity for waging war — will be 5.2, five times higher than America's 1.0 and seven times Germany's 0.7.  Furiously competing for the jobs vacated by every 1,000 older men (ages 55–59) are not 700 (Germany) or 1,000 (U.S.), but 5,200 Afghan youths aged 15 to 19, who cannot help but start life in a desperate struggle for advancement.

Many proponents of withdrawal from Afghanistan are hardly better informed than the opponents.  However, they at least seem to sense that the situation in Central Asia will remain precarious for decades to come.  After all, the exploding demographics are being aggravated by the steady loss of the already few local industries, which will continue to sink in competition with East Asia.  With ever more offspring, premature de-industrialization will make jobs increasingly scarce.

If these angry, ambitious young men cannot emigrate, they will try to force their way up the ladder locally.  Until now, their quest for power has been opposed not only by their peers under other banners but also by Western soldiers, who — like their Russian predecessors whose mothers protested in front of the Kremlin — are statistically only sons or even only children.  If these Western soldiers fall in battle, their family lines are obliterated.  How often can they be sent into mortal danger far from home to keep third or fourth brothers — who outnumber them ten to one — from killing each other?

Nonetheless, indispensable in this twenty years' war was the elimination of Osama bin Laden's Afghan base after al-Qaeda's attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.  To a large extent, by December 2001, U.S. and British air forces had accomplished this task. 

It was not until Germany's Petersberg Conference (Nov. 27 to Dec. 5, 2001) that — through the so-called Bonn Process — Afghanistan was to be endowed with a Jeffersonian constitution and democratic development for both sexes.  Many of these well-meant projects failed or were reversed by the Taliban.  That's why as early as 2019 — after some $850 billion from the U.S. alone — three-star Army general Douglas Lute lamented that the U.S. lacked "a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. ... We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking."

What lesson does the Afghanistan fiasco teach us about the wars underway right now?  Mali, e.g., where fighting has been going on since 2012 and where Germans, as well as Americans, are under fire, is approaching a duration on the scale of the two world wars.  In 2030, the country will still be burdened by a war index of 5.3.

Even after "only" one decade, Africa's endless numbers of warriors in high war index countries are warning anyone who is willing to listen.  They are telling us, in effect, that whoever, as a Westerner, turns a quick victory into a protracted occupation will fail, if the initially inferior locals have superior birth rates.

Gunnar Heinsohn (*1943) taught war demography at the NATO Defense College (Rome) from 2011 to 2020.

Image: Jason Coleman via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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