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."