Sex and war in Afghanistan

I visited Afghanistan only once, on a brief visit in 2014. I fell off a donkey to great hilarity of the local villagers, slept in a compound with the armed owner keeping watch the whole night, heard stories of how life was in Soviet times, and got a glimpse of why the Afghan problem was so intractable.

There were two related elements about how the country functioned that struck me at the time. The first was that there were at least three different security groups operating within the government, each taking a cut of whatever could be cut. There was the local police, the security officers at the border, and the military. They dressed differently, spoke different languages, and were deeply distrustful, like wolves circling each other. Each had to be bribed separately to get anywhere. It seemed a very uneasy truce to me.

The second thing that struck me and filled me with foreboding is that all the top men I met had multiple wives. The local chief of police, who was also the mayor, had seven wives. His son, who was among the better educated, told me he had no hope of getting married there and thus kept asking me how to apply to a visa in Germany where he hoped to find a job and a wife. Two sides of the exact same coin.

The other young women in the area were taken by the other ‘top’ men: the clergy, the security officers, the local top businessman, etc. This was the case all over the North, in the quiet part of Afghanistan where I understand polygamy had not been in the culture for a long time. The custom had spread from the South where taking multiple wives had become a sign of status.

What about the other men? What happens to millions of young men if all the desirable women are taken by the elites? What will those without be willing to risk and do? The answer is obvious: they will take up arms and dream of conquest. That was totally clear in 2014, with the Americans doing little to stop or reverse the practice. By neglecting the sexual politics of the place, they ensured the inevitability of ongoing wars, quite apart from any other dynamic.

Will the Taliban regime 2.0 bring peace to Afghanistan? You need only ask how many women their leaders have to know the answer. The last two leaders apparently had three wives each, with the current one having two. It seems nearly all the top brass in that movement have multiple wives. Future conflict seems guaranteed.

The next time the Americans or anyone else invades the place in the hope of pacifying it, I recommend they have a realistic plan to tackle its sexual politics. Its not the only thing the Americans got wrong, but certainly a major element. As long as the top men monopolise the women of Afganistan, the other young Afghan men will do what desperate men down the ages have done: find an excuse for war.

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3 months ago

I haven’t been to Afghanistan, but I was under the impression polygamy was low there, and also in Pakistan where presumably many of the Taliban come from. See e.g., . Perhaps it is not reported, or perhaps it is more restricted to the type of people you interact with (i.e., not subsistence farmers — the vast majority of the population in many places).

One might also wonder how bad it has to get before you get this sort of stuff — the male/female ratio is high any places but you are not seeing this sort of crazy stuff at a higher rate than other places as far as I can tell. So whilst I don’t doubt you get bad outcomes from it, perhaps it is easier to suppress these days compared to previous history, apart from in failed states that have no ability to do this (c.f., e.g., China).

paul frijters
paul frijters
3 months ago
Reply to  conrad

yes, polygamy is rare, which is a good thing. Also agreed there is plenty of writing on this stuff in journals (eg argues “In order to gain material wealth, excess men are likely to raid, plunder, and rob neighboring ethnic groups.” with data from Africa).
It is indeed not well measured for Afghanistan and, as I said, has been creeping up as a cultural institution from the South (I believe it came from Pakistan which in turn got it from the Gulf not that long ago).
You only need small ethnic groups wherein this happens a lot to hugely destabilize all the neighbours.