The other war in Afghanistan

Malcolm Potts is a UC Berkeley professor and the chairman of the university's Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability. His latest book is "Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safe World."

There are two wars going on in Afghanistan. One is to defeat the Taliban, and that war is not going well. The other is to liberate women, and that war has hardly begun. If the first war is won but the second is lost, Afghanistan will turn into a failed state -- a caldron of violence and misery, home to extremism and totally outside the Western orbit of influence.

Last week’s election, however imperfect, is welcome, but it means little as long as women remain enslaved in this patriarchal, tradition-bound culture. In most of the country, a woman needs her husband’s permission to leave her home. Domestic violence is tragically common. Indeed, the government elected in 2004 passed, and President Hamid Karzai signed into law, legislation legalizing marital rape. Older men use their wealth and power to marry young women. In April, according to news reports, when a teenage Afghan girl called Gulsima eloped with a boy her own age instead of marrying an older man, she and the boyfriend were shot to death in front of the mosque in the southwest province of Nimrod.

Currently, Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, and -- as is the case everywhere women’s rights are nonexistent or in decline -- the birthrate is high. Afghan women have an average of about seven children, and the population has been doubling about every 20 years. Today it is 34 million. According to U.N. estimates, by 2050 it could reach a staggering 90 million. That rapid population growth and the demographics that go with it drive most of Afghanistan’s worst problems.


All too often, demography is overlooked in developing countries, as I experienced in 2002 when I wrote the budgets for a U.N. agency working to rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Part of our job was to write a 10-year financial plan. As my colleague from the World Bank was closing his computer, I said, “You do realize in 10 years’ time there will be almost 50% more people needing healthcare?” He hadn’t. After an expletive and some more hitting of computer keys, the budget totals rose considerably.

I made my first visit to Afghanistan in 1969. Even then it was clear that slowing population growth was a prerequisite for feeding Afghanistan, for its socioeconomic progress and for any shred of hope for a stable democracy.

One result of rapid population growth is that two-thirds of the Afghan population is below the age of 25. The primary role models for the volatile, testosterone-filled young men in this group are local warlords. The reason Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (who, incidentally, is the 17th child of a man who had 54 children) have found a haven in Afghanistan is largely because of the mixture of loyalty and anger generated among males in such a society, in which there are no genuine economic opportunities for advancement. The word “taliban” means “student.” The men who condemned Gulsima and her young boyfriend were probably 18 or 19 years old.

So in a country where women have had their fingers cut off because they painted their nails, where the Taliban threw acid on girls trying to go to school, is there any possibility of improving the status of women? Yes.

When Karzai signed the law demeaning and controlling women, he did so as an ugly deal to buy the support of the very traditional Shiite minority in the west of the country. But linguistically, culturally and religiously, this population is simply an extension of eastern Iran. And Iran happens to be a powerful example of how family planning can liberate women and change a society for the better.

In the 1980s, the typical Iranian woman had almost as many children as her counterpart in Afghanistan today. Even an oil-rich country could not support that rate of population growth. The Koran mentions contraception in a positive light, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the religious leader and founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, endorsed family planning. Iran began to offer a full range of contraceptive choices and even voluntary sterilization. Before young couples could marry, they were required to receive family-planning instruction.

The typical Iranian woman now has 2.1 children. The transition in Iran from high to low birthrates was as rapid as that in China, but without a one-child policy, and it has had similar social benefits. Maternal and infant mortality have fallen, and, despite repressive politics, the U.N. Human Development Index, using such measures as education and individual wealth, shows that the country is better off.

How would this translate to Afghanistan, which is far behind Iran in so many ways? From my experience, I know that teenage girls in Afghanistan want to be in school, despite the cultural obstacles. And having seen firsthand Afghan women suffering from botched abortions, I am sure some, at least, want fewer children. In addition, Westerners are training female health workers. Private pharmacies often dispense drugs smuggled from neighboring countries. It would be possible to introduce contraceptives, even in remote areas.

A stable, modern and functioning Afghanistan is the West’s goal. But it is not worth risking the death of one more American or British soldier fighting there unless there is a bold, achievable plan to educate women, enhance their autonomy and meet their need for family planning.

This feudal, fundamentalist, warrior society will never join the 21st century -- or even the 16th century -- unless we win the war to liberate women. Unless women are given the freedom to choose whether or when to have a child, by 2050 there will be millions more angry men age 15 to 25 in Afghanistan. If only a tiny percentage are potential insurgents or suicide bombers, no Western army, however large and however strongly backed at home, has the slightest chance of prevailing.