Skip to main content

The coming generation of Osamas

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | May 3, 2011

Bin Laden’s death does not make one iota of difference to the  dynamics of global terrorism. Osama was the 17th child of a man who had 57 children  – and who would have had more if he had not died in an air crash. If we are to confront terrorism then we must look up stream for the answer at the culture and at the population structure of Afghanistan and the parts of Pakistan where Osama lived. Osama is one of the most popular boy’s names in Pakistan and there are thousands of young Osamas growing up and waiting to follow his example.

Taliban means ‘student’ – an appropriate label for a country where half the population is under age 18. Most warriors, most criminals, and the highest testosterone levels are in men aged 15 to 30. We should have learned long ago that in fighting wars of the al Qaeda or Taliban type that population size and structure are key variables driving conflict and undermining political stability.

The US spends over two billion dollars a day on the military. It has fighters that fly twice the speed of sound. It has nuclear submarines each carrying more explosive power than has been used in warfare since the dawn of time. All our soldiers are volunteers, well trained and brave, as were the commandos who eventually killed bin Laden. Yet today America is looking to negotiate some sort of exit strategy from Afghanistan where our well armed infantry on the ground has been unable to eliminate the Taliban. Although few will admit it, we are negotiating with a group whose laws include cutting off the hand of a thief or stoning women to death before hundreds of onlookers for allegations of adultery.

Why did the late, unlamented Osama bin Laden do so much damage to America? Why are medieval jihadists in the Taliban fighting the most powerful military in history to a stalemate?

In the 19th century, when the Afghans defeated the Brits, there were fewer than 4 million people in the whole country.  In 1992 when the Taliban (with US help) defeated the Russians, there were about 16 million people. Today the population tops 29 million.

The population is changing but not the way of life. The dress, the beliefs, the atrocious treatment of women, and tribal loyalties have not changed literally for hundreds of years. The weapons, however, have improved. The first time I went up the Kyber Pass, the men carried 19th century flint lock muskets. Today they have AK 47s. The al Qaeda and Taliban training camps remain primitive, but they know how to build road side improvised explosives devices made from cell phones and the detritus of the Cold War.

Even in an age of aerial drones commanded by pilots in air-conditioned offices thousands of miles from the battle front, ultimately victory or defeat depends not on machines, but on the willingness of small groups of young men to lay down their lives for one another, and the degree to which the rest of their society will tolerate their deaths when they die for the cause to which they are committed.  At first sight, there seems little in common between our  army composed of volunteers from one of the richest nations on earth, trained in boot camp, instilled with the rules of war and supplied with the best equipment, and a group of young al Qaeda or Taliban from the same clan who have grown up in the same poor village, have never been to school and who enjoy no job opportunities. But on a closer look, all warrior groups have much in common. The basic behaviors defining victory or defeat were the same for the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, the Union and Confederate armies at Gettysburg, the Americans in Vietnam, or the Allies and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Men fight not for the flag or glory, but for their ‘brother’ in the same platoon. There is one important difference, however, between American troops in Afghanistan and an al Qaeda member, An American soldier hopes he won’t be killed and looks forward to returning home to his family as soon as possible and, unlike al Qaeda or the Taliban, none are willing to commit suicide to achieve their goals.

The Afghan warrior comes from a physically tough environment, they are passionately independent, and they are angry as they see resources dwindle. They belong to a sexually conservative culture where premarital sex is virtually unknown. In this polygamous society the older men with slightly more wealth marry additional teenage brides, while many of the younger bachelors cannot afford to marry. When men do marry their wife will be a much younger, and confined to her husband’s home. Some men will develop genuinely loving, companionable marriages but for others women will remain mere sex objects. Domestic violence is common. The average woman has six children. One in 100 women dies in childbirth.

Osama came from a large although rich family and he was trained as an engineer. But his success as a leader probably arose from the fact that in this 20s and 30s he shared the fundamentalist beliefs of a testosterone-filled young man in a sexually conservative society that looks at outsiders as infidels and death in battle as a virtue.

In 2050 the population of Afghanistan will be 50 to 60 million. By that time there will be more young men in the age group 15 to 30 than there were men, women, and children of all ages when I first visited the country in 1970. If only one in 1000 is an angry fanatic willing to blow themselves up to achieve what they perceive as their goal, then there will provide 12,000 volunteers.

It is naïve to imagine killing bin Laden has in any way diminished the possibility of more terrorist attacks on the west. Military leaders and politicians need to learn that we cannot defeat jihadists with weapons, but we must invest in their sister’s education and offer their mothers something Osama’s mother did not have – the ability to decide whether and when to have a child.

Comments to “The coming generation of Osamas

  1. Well said Malcolm. I agree with your essay but my optimism for change in that region is much lower than yours. Their tribal mentality and accepted cultural misogyny places them into Medieval times.
    Unfortunately, I believe it would be easier to teach a pig to sing then to change the way of life on either side of the Khyber Pass

  2. Once again we observe that “Demography is Destiny.” Want to see the tinder boxes of the next few decades? Look at the interactive map at

    It is time, Dr. Potts, for the same sort of international emphasis that we had in East Asia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, during the Hay Day of Family Planning in which we both participated. I was a “field rat,” working as a liaison from the Ministry of Health to the villages, trained by Sam Keeny, and I still know how “to get the pill from the ship to the mouth.” This is not a demographic exercise, it is a logistical one that needs to be supported by local politics and funded by international donors.

    My work was in Korea and Taiwan from 1967-1976, and the lessons learned there have mostly been forgotten. It is time for a revival of that spirit which dropped TFR by 50% in a generation. You do know what I mean, I am sure. We were pioneers, and we were effective because we went at the problem with Information, Education and Communications (IEC) plus rewards to women, village workers, field staff, clinic staff, and supervisors based on number of adopters. We had targets, set centrally, and we met them month after month at the village level.

    Important components included Mothers Clubs, setting an ideal family norm, helping people understand the economic value of small family size, work in schools at every level, training and supervision of field staff, getting all sectors of society involved, and plenty of tangible and intangible rewards — all are important supports to the provision of free contraceptive services in every village or urban neighborhood.

    This is social marketing of the most basic sort, and it needs to have practical and experienced people in charge.

    Dave Finnigan
    Berkeley MPH 1969

  3. Thanks for writing this. I agree that fighting will not solve the problem. How do you propose investing in women’s education, including their control over reproduction rights, given the culture?

  4. Thank you – investing in their education will be a gift to them and to us. If we can understand that their development and well-being (to whatever extent from where it is now) is also in our own interest, then both countries will have a chance.

  5. Excellent. This article brings up the hidden fact behind things which are often neglected.One must also correlate things with human behaviour in this. An educated behaviour always differ in “act”

Comments are closed.