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."