There’s a reason conflicts in Afghanistan go badly for major powers
President Trump has another Russian problem. Like other American presidents since 2001, Trump has been following in the footsteps of the failed Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Trump recently told the Pentagon that he fears the United States might be “losing” the war in Afghanistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, he is “pressed to send more troops.”
Though the president has good instincts, neither he nor his military advisers seem to understand the demographic origin of their problems on the battlefield. Birth rates, not bombs and bullets, explain how an apparently insignificant country like Afghanistan has been able to challenge the two most powerful military machines in the world.
In 1979, the 380 million people of the Soviet bloc went to war with the 13 million people of Afghanistan. After suffering horrendous casualties (estimates range from 650,000 some 2 million dead) in 10 years of bloody warfare, Afghan rebels should have been ready to surrender. The Soviets and their allies had managed to reduce the number of potential Afghan insurgents from 1.76 to 1.65 million. And yet the Soviets had failed to break the fighting spirit of Afghanistan.
The Russians were not aware that during a decade of conflict, Afghanistan’s already high war index had jumped from 4.65 to 6.53. Faced with that extreme drive of angry young men, it was the Communist superpower that gave up the fight.
A nation’s war index indicates its capacity for violent struggle. For example, Afghanistan’s index jumping from 4.6 to 6.5 meant that every 1,000 males aged 55 to 59 were being replaced by 4,600 to 6,500 young men aged 15 to 19. These young men were ready and eager to compete for success in society and victory on the battlefield. The Soviets, with their falling birth rates, could not match Afghanistan’s endless supply of military replacements and its unwavering willingness to fight.
Neither war, nor civil war, in Afghanistan weakened its ability to endure losses on the front lines. Their demographic advantage is enormous, and in times of conflict has grown. Even after suffering appalling casualties against the Soviets, Afghanistan’s war index increased, enlarging its capacity to absorb even higher losses. A decade after the Russians retreated, Afghanistan’s pool of fighting-age males (15 to 29 years) grew from 1.65 to 2.73 million. The unbreakable fighting spirit of young men had defeated the hardware of modern war.
“Only the young let go of life easily,“ Prussia’s leading military instructor, Colmar von der Goltz, had observed in 1883. Goltz recommended putting 17-year-olds in the line of fire. In the wake of 9/11, as America was gearing up for war, the Pentagon was not aware that it would soon be confronted by a nation that had taken Goltz’s advice.
When American troops went into battle in 2001, Afghanistan’s war index was higher than ever. No matter how many smart bombs America and NATO dropped, Afghan forces grew stronger. The West was still not aware it was battling demographics. With an average of seven to eight children being born to each woman, Afghan insurgents could easily replace their losses.
So President Trump has good reason to feel uneasy about Afghanistan. Today Afghanistan’s pool of warriors numbers above 5 million; the country’s war index is almost 6.0.
This means the American military faces a difficult struggle in a still-volatile country. When a nation’s war index exceeds 3.0 (i.e. when there are 3,000 or more teens for every 1,000 older men) some form of violence becomes likely.
If emigration is blocked, young men—desperate for jobs and advancement—will resort to crime, homicide, gang conflicts, political coups, revolution, internecine strife, genocide, or war. Nations with a war index of 1.0 (such as the United States) or lower (such as Germany, with its 0.65) which consider intervening in Afghanistan, or demographically similar war theatres, must act with extreme caution. NATO countries and other nations with low birth rates are sensitive to battlefield casualties. Statistically, every fallen western soldier represents his mother’s only son—or in many cases, her only child.
It is understandable that a president does not want to lose a war that has already devoured $1 trillion and more than 3,500 U.S. and allied soldiers. Yet, the hard reality is this: If the struggle in Afghanistan continues, in 13 years the pool of Afghan warriors will have jumped, since 2001, from 2.7 to 7.3 million men, and its war index of 4.24 will still be four times higher than in the US.
If politicians push their armed forces toward combat, military leaders should first focus on the enemy’s war index. Where the index is 3.0 or higher, generals should think twice about intervening. If intervention cannot be avoided, military leaders should remember the expensive lessons learned by the Russians and the West alike: Planes, tanks, and troops have a limited impact when aggression is being driven by demographics.