Love Is a Battlefield

Are the Taliban using sex to fight America?

HELMAND, Afghanistan — Mohamed Wali had been laboring in Iran for seven months when the local preacher knocked on his family's gate back home in Helmand province early one morning. Wali's widowed mother opened the door. "Call your son home," the preacher said. "There is an organization that is helping young men get married."

In this highly conservative country, particularly in its southern parts, marriage largely remains the only sexual outlet for youth. And with unemployment hovering around 35 percent and dowry prices as high as 50 times the average monthly income, marriage -- and therefore sex -- is becoming increasingly difficult to afford. For 19-year-old Wali, there was no hope at home, not in Greshk, the most violent district in the country. He chose the long path -- to labor his way to marriage in Iran. Others may not.

Frustrated with the government for failing to create jobs or control dowry prices, many of Afghanistan's young men remain vulnerable to Taliban recruitment. In highly volatile areas like Helmand, the insurgency is not an alien force but often a cousin or a next-door neighbor, deeply entrenched and easily accessible. The Taliban, meanwhile, has ramped up its psychological operations, positioning itself as an alternative to everything that's wrong with the Kabul regime and selling the battlefield as an outlet for pent-up rage. Sex, of course, makes the Taliban's sales pitch that much tougher to resist -- 72 virgins await the insurgent lucky enough to die in the line of duty.

In Afghanistan, marriage is seen as a way to tame young men in the height of their energies. Sudden bursts of anger at home -- kicking the dinner bowl after an argument, slamming the door -- are smiled upon as youth expressing their desire for marriage. An acknowledgement of the link between sexual energy and violent energy is written into Afghanistan's cultural DNA. But science, too, speaks to that link.

The idea that sexual frustration is liable to boil over into aggressive expression dates back to Sigmund Freud, who theorized that Eros (love) and Thanatos (aggression or the death instinct) were the two basic drivers of all human behavior. Today, scientists still acknowledge the destructive potential of desire. "Sexual frustration is simply part of the potent human drive to survive and reproduce," said Jeff Victoroff, a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California and an expert on the psychology of terrorism.

But it's not simply the lack of intercourse that leads to violence, according to Victoroff. It's the more basic instinct to survive and reproduce. "When a youth perceives that his options for success in the larger domain of survival and reproduction are constrained because of a political issue, one reaction -- depending on individual temperament -- will be to seek alternative pathways toward that deeply innate evolutionary mandate in the company of political extremists," he said.

The Taliban has turned this instinct into an advantage -- offering dignity in this life and carnal rewards in the one that follows. But it's not just about sex. Far from a pure insurgency, the Taliban is increasingly positioning itself as a shadow government, promising to provide for citizens' basic needs where the government has not. Bashing the corruption of Kabul has become a central pillar of the group's psychological warfare -- which one senior Afghan official recently called 80 percent of the Taliban's fight.

The Taliban rejects the idea that it is exploiting vulnerable youth. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesman, says his movement is fighting an economically asymmetric war and does not have the resources to help youth get married. Even so, he admits that "if we reach a position where we can help youth in finding jobs and tackling the excessive expenses of weddings -- we certainly will do that."

In urban areas like Kabul, there are other outlets for sexual energy. The religious Khatem Alnabieen University, for example, has an exercise program for that express purpose. "Exercise on daily basis is a recommendation of Islam, but here at the university it's a requirement," says Abdul Hadi Mohseni, chancellor of the university, which he claims was built with $13 million in cash remaining from the anti-Soviet jihad. "A person needs to free the pent-up energies; otherwise it will lead to inappropriate temptations."

Phone relationships offer another outlet. In addition to constant texting, young couples whisper into phones late into the night. Cell phones have seen an exponential rise in the country, with more than 17 million cell-phone subscribers today compared to 2002, when less than 1 percent of Afghans had access to telecommunication. And for those without a steady companion, there is always a young voice at one of the many phone-company call centers that have sprung up in the last decade. "The boys who work at the call centers have the most number of girlfriends," smiles a young man who works at Etisalat, one of the country's thriving cellular networks.

But in deeply traditional rural areas like Helmand, it's usually marriage or nothing. The creative program that helped Wali get married originated not from the loose coffers of the U.S. counterinsurgency operation or the Afghan government, but a partnership between a little known NGO and an Afghan youth organization. Over four months last year, Comfort Aid International, an Islamic charity based out of Texas, registered more than 50 couples from across Helmand province. It relied on local networks -- such as the Afghan Youth Movement -- as well as local clergy and tribal elders to compile a list of young men who lacked the resources to marry. The charity chose to target Greshk because the community had suffered tremendously over the past decade and the dire economic situation made its young people extraordinarily vulnerable, according to Khalil Parsa of the Afghan Youth Movement.

After Wali's name appeared on the list, the preacher came knocking. In his seven months in Iran, Wali had saved only $1,000 -- a quarter of the dowry he was supposed to pay his bride's family. But the organization offered to cover the wedding costs for 50 couples, and urged brides' families to forgive -- or significantly reduce -- their dowries. Wali had struck gold.

For all the optimism about the program, however, only about 38 couples showed up on the day of the ceremony. Many remained skeptical of the scheme -- or fearful that the ceremony itself, supported by the government, could be a prime target for the insurgents who remain very active in the region. For the grooms who did attend, there was more bad news: The families of the brides were unforgiving despite their promises of leniency over the dowries. In Wali's case, they insisted on the full $3,500 dowry.

With his savings from Iran and the proceeds from a plot of land he sold, Wali managed to pay $2,500 upfront. "On the morning of the wedding, the family wouldn't let go of the bride at the beauty parlor until we came up with the remaining $1,000," Wali's mother explained with a bitter smile.

Nevertheless, the wedding went ahead as planned. Decorated in flowers and ribbons, 38 vehicles lined up in front of the mosque in Greshk. In a brief ceremony that included speeches, a simple lunch, and the signing of marriage certificates, 38 couples walked out of the mosque, boarded the vehicles, and began a new life.

For the young men, the odds that this new life will include fighting with the Taliban are now greatly reduced. Not only did the mass wedding meet a fundamental need -- marriage -- but increased familial obligation will make it more difficult to join the insurgency. The mass wedding has also had a dampening effect on the price of dowries. "The people are a bit worried now that such mass weddings [are] ruining the market for their girls," said Sayed Saleh, one of the organizers of the wedding, with a smile. "They want to get them married soon."

Jawad Jalali/AFP/Getty Images


Death Comes Quietly in Mali

It’s not Islamic radicals or war that’s killing the poor people of the Sahel. It’s something far simpler.

DJENNÉ, Mali — Last Saturday, Albert Ganou, an unemployed tour guide with an ailing heart, prostrated on a thin cotton blanket in his musty room and refused to eat. His limbs swelled. His breath grew shallow. When his pregnant wife and four daughters spoke to him he could barely whisper back.

Friends pooled money and helped Ganou through the sewage-sluiced snarl of narrow adobe alleys to Djenné district hospital, which employs a handful of general practitioners and some nurses. The doctor prescribed painkillers and a salt-free diet. Then night fell and the spongy, low sky dribbled a billion stars over the millennial town, and Ganou died. Men buried him quietly at daybreak in the town's walled cemetery by the Bani River, where tamarind trees contort their baroque trunks over generations of the dead, and Djenné's world-celebrated Sudanic skyline gives way to the immense pale horizons of thorny and flat Sahelian wilderness.

Ganou was in his early forties. In the postmortem the doctors stated the cause of his death as "heart failure." They should have written "neglect."

From time to time, humanitarian crises push Mali into the world's distracted eye. The latest example is the French intervention to force out of Mali's north a hodgepodge of radical Salafis, Tuareg rebels, and drug traffickers linked to al Qaeda, who had established there a punitive and grotesque theocracy reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch paintings, keeping order through amputations and lashings. The day Ganou died, French and Malian troops wrested free of the Islamists' control Kidal, the last insurgent-held city in Mali's north. Months earlier, three successive coups and counter-coups in Bamako and the simultaneous insurgent expansion in the north briefly grabbed international attention. The year before, drought and famine throttled Mali, and networks broadcast the stereotypical images of Sahel's dying, bloat-bellied babies -- a painful echo of the famines of the mid-1980s, when a million skeletal people wasted away on this hardscrabble, laterite savanna.

The creeping systemic healthcare crisis that allows Malians like Ganou to perish daily is harder to capture in made-for-TV snippets. Aid workers agree: War notwithstanding, the country is in no outward emergency. There are no throngs of matchstick-limbed children with protruding stomachs, no AIDS victims scooped into shallow graves. Simple poverty makes the problem as endemic as it is routine.

Most Malians cannot afford to seek even perfunctory healthcare in the country's limited medical facilities, which, like so much infrastructure in this impoverished country, are propped up by international development organizations and relief groups whose budgets now are stretched extra-thin by the needs of more than 300,000 people who have fled the fighting in the north. Even in peacetime, the country has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, after Afghanistan, and thirteenth-highest death rate overall. One in three children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Relief workers in Bamako, Mali's capital, told me this is normal, a habitual, unabating catastrophe.

The calamities fold onto one another, double and triple up, mostly unexamined and unassisted, invisible to the rest of the world. For example, no one can guess how many people will be hungrier, sicker, and more destitute than usual because they have welcomed into their homes families of relatives who have run away from the war in the north. Aid organizations expect 660,000 children under five to suffer from acute malnutrition this year, one of the aftershocks of last year's severe food crisis. Since Mali's impoverished, putschist government is bogged down in its own stalled political process, the burden of providing healthcare for them will fall on international NGOs. And what about men like Ganou, who could not afford even an electrocardiogram, because the clinic in Djenné has no EKG machines and to reach the nearest one that does, in Mopti, would have cost an unaffordable $150?

Of course, the people of the Sahel have been navigating attenuated resources forever. The 15 million Malians are persevering, chaffing in the shade of mosques, watching the Africa Cup of Nations on television sets outside shabby mercantiles at dusk. In Djenné, they share dinner leftovers with neighbors. They parcel out their children among various relatives to avoid starvation. My host here has taken in two.

After Ganou's widow and children complete the 40 days of mourning, she probably will move into her parents' crowded and beggared house, and my host probably will take in two of Ganou's daughters, as well. But doctors haven't been able to tell him why his own 22-month-old son has been cranky and feverish for more than a week now, despite the malaria medicine and painkillers prescribed by the same district hospital that could offer no succor to Albert Ganou.

Ganou had been ill for a year. His friends say he had a weak heart, but how weak exactly no one can say. It is possible that last February he had a heart attack; but then he got slightly better, even got his wife pregnant. It is possible he had a second heart attack last month, when he suddenly became too frail to move. There was no one in Djenné to diagnose him, no one to recommend treatment, let alone perform surgery.

For the last week of his life, Ganou lay in the stuffy room of his oblique clay house. When friends visited he whispered, sometimes in the English he had learned to guide Western tourists: "I really don't want to eat," and "God knows best."

The day Ganou died, I sat with a primary school teacher of French under a thatch awning in the square before the Grande Mosque of Djenné. The awning belonged to a goldsmith who, like many men here, has been unemployed for two years. Once, Djenné was a center of trade and Islamic learning, and an important resting point for trans-Saharan caravans of salt, slaves, and gold. After the great famine of the 1980s, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. Since then, much of the town's economy has depended on tourism. But tourists stopped coming two years ago,  kept away by the combination of the global financial crisis and the fear of kidnappings by Mali's Islamists. Now much of adult Djenné sits under thatch awnings, stringing together beaded necklaces no one will buy, smoking cigarettes, drinking tea, and waiting for better times. They are the parents of perpetually hungry children. They are the adults wasting away invisibly from sickness, like Ganou. "Everybody here," said the town mayor, Bomoye Traoré, "is very, very poor."

The teacher and I drank hot hibiscus tea from shot glasses. His name was Cheik Kanitoo. He was 32 years old. From time to time, children in tatters flitted just under the shade of the pleated awning and stood there, mucoid and stunted and coughing the terrible cough of the condemned. Kanitoo told me that at least a third of his class of 120 seven-year-olds is always sick.

"They have rheumy eyes. They are malnourished. They have respiratory problems. They have malaria," Kanitoo said. "Parents don't have the opportunity to take them to the doctor. They have a choice, either to buy food or medicine -- sometimes they can't afford either."

Since this school year started in September, one of Kanitoo's students died, a girl. He doesn't know of what, but suggests a combination of malaria and malnutrition. He doesn't remember the student's name, or what she looked like. Nor does he remember the five or six of his students who died last year, or the five or six who died the year before.

"I have a giant class, how can I remember?" he said. "But every morning before class I take attendance.... If someone doesn't respond for one, two, three days in a row I ask the class what happened. Sometimes the classmates say, 'he's dead,' or 'she's sick.'"

How does a teacher cope, emotionally, with such a loss? Kanitoo couldn't say. How does he explain it to the rest of his class? He doesn't. Instead, he told me that after school some of the boys he teaches come to his house asking for sugar.

"You know what they do with the sugar? They have one meal a day, millet, for breakfast. So in the afternoon if they get some sugar they just eat it. Out of a plastic bag. They dip their fingers into it and lick it off." 

One of Kanitoo's friends tipped a tin cup full of water, and a lizard sidled up to the drip and with a quick tongue caught the drops before they fell and curdled like mercury balls in the dust. The loudspeaker at the Grande Mosque crackled like distant bursts of gunfire and a muezzin began his summons to the afternoon prayer. The Harmattan, the dry northeasterly wind of winter, blew particles of straw, the smell of manure and motorcycle exhaust, cigarette smoke, wisps of prayer, dreams of food. A small boy in a ripped orange shirt stood at the edge of the awning and looked at us awhile. He said nothing. Then he left.