Islamism and war: the demographics of rage

Gunnar Heinsohn
16 July 2007

Canada's military death-toll in Afghanistan increased to sixty-six with the killing of six soldiers by a huge roadside bomb in Panjwali district, southwest of Kandahar, on 4 July 2007. In the forty-five months from 17 April 2002 to 31 December 2005, eight Canadians were killed - four of them by friendly-fire. But in the eighteen months of 2006 and 2007 alone, fifty-eight have given their life.

A British soldier killed in the upper Geresk valley of Helmand province on 12 July brought the number of British military deaths in Afghanistan to sixty-four, of which fifty-three have occurred since July 2006. The country's media reports on 16 July that the casualty-rate is both higher than that of United States forces, and (in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan) approaching that experienced by British troops in the second world war.
Gunnar Heinsohn is the director of the Raphael-Lemkin-Institut at the University of Bremen, Europe's first institute devoted to comparative genocide research. He is the author of Sons and World Power: Terror in the Rise and Fall of Nations (Söhne und Weltmacht; 8th impression, December 2006), a German-language scholarly bestseller. In 2005-07, he lectured on the subject of youth bulges and violence to Germany's secret service (BND), commanders of British armed forces, and Germany's Academy of Security Policy in Berlin

Also by Gunnar Heinsohn:

"Why Gaza is fertile ground for angry young men"
(14 June 2007)
In September 2006, General James L Jones, then Nato's supreme commander for Europe, admitted to his deep surprise about the growing threat of the Taliban (though this is a factor long discussed in Paul Rogers's column in openDemocracy). As in Iraq, western strategists are scrambling to deal with the resurgence of sustained violent opposition on the heels of splendid western victories. True, foreign aid has not been managed well; in many cases it has been squandered and has evaporated. Moreover, centuries-old tribal regional rule that resents the western occupiers and their proxy government has reasserted itself and. But where have all the recent insurgents come from?

An unlimited reservoir

Why are the Afghan insurgents, who were so utterly defeated in the autumn of 2001, growing stronger every day? What is the driving force in this conflict? The terror-experts believe that it comes "out of ruins" or "out of Pakistan" (Newsweek, 2 October 2006) or "out of Iran" (Guardian, 2 October 2006). It is also seen as rising "out of nowhere" (Der Spiegel, 2 October 2006) or even "out of graves" (Financial Times Deutschland, 2 June 2005).

When Germany lost another three men - on 19 May 2007 at Kunduz, bringing its own toll to twenty-one - the nation's leading terror expert Rolf Tophoven, was stunned because the Taliban "appear to have an unlimited reservoir of fresh fighters" (Die Welt, 21 May 2007). Yet, he could not locate this mysterious source. Germany's military intelligence service sees the terror spilling over from Iraq. Some 200 victims of suicide attacks inside Afghanistan appear to indicate an epidemic reaching from the Euphrates to the battlefields 2,000 kilometres further east. Yet, for terror to do its work, it requires active carriers. True, some Taliban militants receive training in Iraq. Both countries have Muslim populations. But so does, for example, Tunisia. The latter is located right in the heart of the Islamic world, too. Yet, in Tunisia terrorism has nearly disappeared. What makes today's Muslim Tunisia so different from Muslim Afghanistan?

If Afghanistan's "unlimited reservoir of fresh fighters" cannot be located in its burial-grounds, could its maternity wards provide a clue to the difference between central Asia and north Africa? Could it be that the crucial difference is the relative birth-rate? As early as 1990, Tunisia's total fertility rate fell below four children per woman. Today, total fertility in Tunisia stands at 1.74, close to Canada's 1.61. In Afghanistan, however, the birth-rate is four times higher than in Tunisia and shows no sign of abating.

War's supply-side

Since 2002, I have been warning that the increasing turmoil in Afghanistan is due to factors other than religious fanaticism or abject poverty. Those factors have always been there - and in times when there was no substantial civil insurrection. Instead, the blame should be placed on Afghanistan's baby-boom, which has created half a century of "youth bulges" in the country's population. The study of history shows clearly that when 30% or more of a nation's male inhabitants are in the 15-29 age bracket, the result is chaos, violence and upheaval.

Between 1916 (6.4 million people) and 1940 (7.5 million people), Afghanistan's population was hardly growing (see Table 1). Then, between 1950 and 2006, the population of Afghanistan suddenly quadrupled, exploding from 8 million to 32 million. In 2006, out of a total of 15.3 million males, 4.12 million are between 15 and 29 years old. These 27% appear to fall short of the 30% threshold for a violent bulge in Afghanistan's population. However, since the communist takeover in 1978, Afghanistan has suffered close to 2 million dead and 5 million refugees, many of whom never returned home.

If, within the last fifteen years, just one million of the dead and the exiled have belonged to the age bracket in question, the youth bulge in 2006 would have stood not at 27% but at 35%. And there are 6.7 million Afghani boys who are still under 15. In the age bracket form 60-64 there are 242,000 Afghani men. In the age bracket of 0-4 follow 2.7 million Afghani boys. The ratio for Canada is 751,000 men aged 60-64 to just 921,000 boys. Because of its massive demographic armament, Afghanistan - even in 2020 - will be roiled by angry young men who are needed neither on the farms nor in the factories.

Table 1

Demography of Afghanistan [A] and Iraq [I]

compared to Canada [C]

Population in million

Total Fertility


8 (A) 5 (I)

(C: 14)

7.40 (A) 7.15 (I) (C: 3.45)


13 (A) 10 (I)

(C: 22)

7.50 (A) 7.18 (I) (C: 2.34)


15 (A) 18 (I)

(C: 27)

7.20 (A) 6.15 (I) (C: 1.86)


32 (A) 27 (I)

Boys under 15: 6.8 Mil. (A) 5.3 Mill. (I)

(C: 33)

(C 3.1mill.)

6.69 (A) 4.80 (I) (C: 1.61)


56 (A) 37 (I)

(C: 37)

6 (A) 3.5 (I) (C: 1.7)


82 (A) 56 (I)

(C: 41)


In the coming decades, close to 500,000 Afghani males will reach fighting age each year. Almost all of these young men want to prove themselves in the traditional warrior spirit of their homeland. Since 1945, every Afghan father who has retired from the battlefield has left his unfinished fighting to three or four sons. Almost none of these sons can find a legal job, i.e. in opium-free agriculture or within the army and police units financed with western money. But these aid measures continue to provide better food, education, and medical care than ever.

This is a marvellous humanitarian achievement. Yet, no combination could be more explosive. Peace activists promise that the victory over hunger will also bring victory over war, and triumph for democracy. Youth-bulge research, however, shows again and again that when hunger is not an overwhelming issue and jobs remain scarce, the killing starts in earnest. Why? Because humanitarian measures have made millions of sons stronger and better educated. It is easy to multiply rice bowls and textbooks. It is impossible to do the same with careers. Moreover, for bread, people will beg; for positions in society, they will fight. And fighting offers a tempting choice for some 350,000 angry young men out of the half million coming of age every year.

It is necessary to compare that potential of nearly 5 million additional warriors up to 2020 to Nato's 35,000 soldiers operating in the country in 2007. Therefore, the crucial problem of Afghanistan is not an unfamiliar form of government backed by foreigners. The main problem is, and will be for decades to come, what to do with millions of able-bodied - yet economically superfluous - sons. The Taliban, if it had remained in power, would also have had to deal with this problem. They would have needed to invent an enemy for their surplus male youth to execute their frustration against. Otherwise the angry young Taliban would turn to internecine aggression.

A fertile conflict

Nation-building and democratisation follow demographic disarmament; such measures fail as long as a youth bulge runs its course. "Roundtables" are fine for demographically imploding nations such as East Germany, Ukraine or Georgia, where everyone taking a seat at the table will later find a position in his nation's administration. In youth-bulge countries, however, five young males will start fighting for one seat in the conference hall. When youth bulges doubled Latin America's share of world population (from 4.2% in 1914 to 8.4% in 1990; i.e. from 75 million to 440 million) nearly every state failed. The young divided themselves between guerrillas for freedom and soldiers for the law. After more than one million dead, democracy returned with little external help only when total fertility had fallen from seven until the 1980s to three or two by 2006.

The cruelties and terror that are caused by members of a youth bulge are not caused by pious books, or by those who might abuse such tomes. The violence is caused by ordinary young men who do not want to be regarded as cold-blooded killers or suicidal psychopaths. In order to draw respect as honourable executioners of the elites they want to replace, they search for a lofty standpoint from which the killing appears to be the last spilling of blood before salvation. This means that the rage of young Islamic males cannot be assuaged with explanations of the "actual" or "really intended" contents of holy books. The unceasing flood of articles about the evil influence of radical Islamic teachers reverses cause and effect. Where there are no suitable masses of young men to influence, even agitators of genius achieve practically nothing. And even where it can be shown that Islamic schools have no terrorism in their curriculum, this does not prevent their graduates from fighting for a new caliphate.

Statistically, the coalition's soldiers who now face a swelling flood of Taliban fighters are likely to be either only sons or even only children. These brave men are ready to put their lives at risk for the noble causes of peace and democracy. To the young Afghani fighter, and his two or three brothers, however, who take pride in killing them, they serve as a means of winning honour and perhaps even a place in their traditional society.

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