The youth timebomb: why the angry generation is becoming the militant generation

talibanFor many years people have been trying to explain why rational young men turn to extremism. From French revolution era protests like the Babeuf plot, the exploits of the IRA to modern day Islamist extremists at home and abroad, academics, psychologists and historians have tried to understand why they commit such heinous acts against their fellow men.

Now, not for the first time, sexual availability (and the lack there of) has been cited as the main cause of Afghan men joining the Taliban by journalist Mujib Mashal in an article for Foreign Policy.

Of course, I do know pretend to be an expert on the subject of Afghan culture but I find it hard to believe it can be boiled down to such a simple cause.

Mashal argues young men in the still deeply traditionally Afghanistan are becoming sexually frustrated by the lack of marriage opportunities in a country where bride prices remain high despite low levels of employment. Many men are being forced to seek employment as labourers in Iran to raise the money demanded by women’s families and are thus (supposedly) remaining virgins for longer.

The build up of this frustration is supposedly being exploited by the Taliban who offer the best wages in the area, especially in Helmand, and the promise of 72 virgins waiting for them in paradise.

While I have to concede Mashal probably knows more about the specifics of the region (and being a man) than I do, I have to question if it can really be that simple. To boil down all male frustrations in a situation as complex as Afghanistan seems unnecessarily reductive.

Instead the picture, as always, is more complex.

Some blame must be held at the feet of the NATO occupation itself. Whilst America and their allies have been welcome in the past by the metropolitan elites of Kabul, after 11 and a half long years of occupation their patience is wearing thin.

The invading forces promised democracy, prosperity and peace they are struggling to deliver on that promise. Afghanistan is at the bottom of Transparency International’s list of corruption states alongside North Korea and Somalia. Hamid Karzai is supported by the NATO alliance not because he is a paragon of democratic virtue, but because he is not the Taliban. There are still questioning lingering over the the Afghan government’s legitimacy as well as the undue influence of Karzai’s family which has grown mysteriously wealthy since he took office.

Karzai’s own brother has been linked to the lucrative opium trade rampant in the country which is said to provide the Taliban with most of their funds.

As much as I am loathed to use historical examples as an absolute guide to the future of the country, I have to draw some parallels with America past interventions in the 20th century. The support of the Batista regime in Cuba, despite local opposition made it easier for Fidel Castro to swoop in as the America’s feared.

So a similar fate could await Afghanistan when the troops pull out. With even Karzai himself blaming the corruption woes of the country on its foreign occupiers it is easy to see how dissatisfaction can turn into extremism.

Like the young in the UK, Afghan young people were promised prosperity. However, unlike the young in the UK, they are living in an extreme and dangerous environment. After growing up amidst bloodshed and warfare a whole generation of young men and women thought they would start to see the beginning of a new order which has been instead mired in the old ways of corrupt leaders, blind occupiers and frustrated local communities.

For young (and old) women, domestic violence, rape and honour killings are still commonplace. Women were forced to accept a law passed in 2009 that banned them leaving the house in certain circumstances without the consent of their husbands. While the more urban educated classes may welcome women’s emancipation, the rural attitudes towards women suggest the country still has a long way to go.

For young men, often there only one choice; become a labourer or become a ‘freedom fighter’. With great wealth and power cut off by the dominance of a corrupted elite, the windows that appeared to open in 2001 have snapped shut in their faces. Many are too young to really remember what life was like under the Taliban and many are probably feeling like the unknown foreign devil is convenient scapegoat for all their problems.

Instead of sexual frustration, maybe the real reason for so many young men joining the Taliban is frustration itself. Sex, eternal glory and wealth all play their part in a bigger picture of dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the status quo. Maybe joining the Taliban for many young men in Afghanistan is an act of defiance? Instead of wanting 72 virgins, maybe this just want someone to sit up and take notice?

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Why Its Still Not ‘OK’ To Be A Girl

New Frontier, Old Problems: An Uncertain Future For Women's Rights in Afghanistan, Courtesy of National Geographic

Whenever Britain reaches a morbid anniversary of our time in Afghanistan or a new death milestone as more and more troops are thrown on the battlefield with armour little more advanced than the average London riot shield, politicians and commentators emphatically insist we are there ‘for the women’.

Despite the rather dubious provenance of this justification, as at the time is was supposedly an attempt to rout out Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, the rhetoric states it has brought about nothing but improvement in the lives of Afghan women as Westernised values seep into the country.

However, whatever American and British propaganda may tell you, Afghanistan is still not the best place to be a girl.

The continuing guerilla presence of the Taliban is normally what captures international focus on women’s rights as their frequent attacks on girl students and their schools capture the world’s attention. The negotiations between NATO forces and the Taliban received intense scrutiny from human rights organisation Amnesty International at the end of 2011 with their campaign to ensure women’s rights were not used as a bargaining chip in the peace talks. The Taliban have now suspend negotiations with the USA because of their ‘ever changing position’ but the continuing focus on the seemingly unending struggle with the Taliban neglects the serious challenges women face in mainstream Afghan society.

Over the past eleven years there have been huge strides in not just women’s, but human rights generally in Afghanistan. With discrimination legislation, access to education and healthcare and the beginnings of a (sort of) democratic system it appears to Western observers that on the surface their mission has been successful in creating a lasting legacy of freedom in the country. Men and women are declared equal under the Afghan constitution and there is a quota of a quarter of all seats in government reserved for women which was exceeded in the elections of 2005 and 2010.

Nevertheless, the cultural war is still far from over. Afghanistan still remains divided along tribal lines, rife with corruption and before the arrival of the Taliban in the late nineties; suffered years of civil war, invasion by Russia and the rule of tribal kings. Its currently ranked 150th in the world for press freedom , 1.4 on the report published by Transparency International in 2010 where 10 is most clean and 0 is most corrupt and 181th for maternal mortality(out of 181).

What people often forget is that although the extremes of the Taliban were rejected by mainstream Afghan society a large part of its attitudes to women were almost as repressive as the group’s and some have even become more radicalised by the speed of Western attempts at change.
Continue reading Why Its Still Not ‘OK’ To Be A Girl

A Review of the Year: The Middle East in 2011



So its been quite a year really hasn’t it? The Middle East is always a major flashpoint in every year but this year it took over the epicentre of nearly every major news story across the world as nearly the entire region became a battleground between the haves and the havenots.

Arab Spring: The spark that lit the bonfire was the actions of one Tunisian man who set himself on fire to highlight the dire situation. What happened next promises to be endlessly mythologised by the media and a few overwrought novels and memoirs which are bound to crawl out of the woodwork in a few years but the speed and sweep of rebellion throughout the Middle East and the fear and hope it has inspired in countries as diverse as China and UK is certainly compelling. Time magazine named ‘the Protester’ their ‘Person of the Year’ because Mohamed Bouazizi didn’t just inspire the Arab World, he also inspired the anti-corruption campaigning in India, protests over contested elections in Russia and arguably the worldwide Occupy movement and made authoritarian governments like China quiver in fear.

Afghanistan: Another day, another death. As the death toll creeped up for foreign troops battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, talk soon turned to reconciliation and withdrawal as the West hoped that the country could finally build their own future. However, these hopes soon started to sour as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai appeared to be increasing undemocratic and corrupt despite Western support, a memo leaked back in August showed that the British government were ‘looking forward’ to his departure and last week, fired the head of the commission looking into human rights abuses in the country. Furthermore, in order to bring peace to Afghanistan, negotiations have to be made with the Taliban which could jeopardise the headway made for women’s rights which is claimed to be the main reason foreign troops are still occupying the country. This has led to Amnesty International launching a campaign to protect women’s interests during the negotiations.

Iran: A country never far from international trouble, the end of this year saw the withdrawal of British diplomats from Iran over fresh concerns over its nuclear programme. Although, the Tehran Times recently reports the foreign minister is willing to reopen negotiations 2011 remains yet another tense chapter in the history of Iran’s relationship with the West. Last week Tehran threatened to cut off the vital Hormuz strait oil passage to the West in a move the USA says ‘will not be tolerated’ over a UN report that suggests that Iran is developing atomic bombs for aggressive purposes, a charge vehemently denied by the Iranian government. The stalemate continues.

Iraq: As the withdrawal of British and American troops is almost complete and one of the most controversial wars in recent history draws to a close questions over Iraq plans to govern itself as a modern, democratic nation. Barack Obama said that the country still isn’t perfect but they are leaving behind a ‘sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq’ and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that lives weren’t lost in vain. Only time will tell.

Libya: This year saw the fall of Africa’s longest serving dictator, Colonel Gaddafi. The start of the year saw the uprising inspired by their Tunisian neighbours, March saw foreign intervention with the UN backing air strikes that pushed Gaddafi into hiding and an international game of ‘Where’s Gaddafi?’ had begun by the end of August. By October a brutal man had met a brutal end. It was an inhumane and merciless way to end an inhumane and merciless era, we can only hope there will be better things to come for Libya in 2012.

Syria: The other side of the Arab civil war coin to Libya, Bashir Al-Assad refuses to fall. After almost a year of civil war, rejection by the international community and even sanctions from the Arab League, Syria shows no signs of easing up the oppression of its people. Youtube videos and blogs show images of horrific tortures of civilians as protesters ‘disappear’ and turn up weeks later on their families’ doorsteps in bodybags. With the success of the Libya mission, international commentators are calling for greater intervention as human rights are abuse hither and thither. 5000 people are reported to have been killed. We can only hope that the West will do more than make a show of shaking their fist in 2012.

Palestine vs Israel: The forty year old stalemate between Israel and Palestine saw a dramatic development in the latter’s favour as UNESCO voted to recognise it as a country infuriating Israel and its most influential backer, the USA Congress. Palestine is campaigning for full recognition by the international community to give it more power to move against Israeli land acquistions beyond the boundaries of the Peace treaty in 1967.

After The Fall: What’s Next For The Middle East?

Courtesy of Nick Hayes/ The Guardian

Now that the Gaddafi regime has been ousted from Tripoli and the rebels revel in and loot the various palaces of him and his family, the blogosphere and the Guardian’s picture editors are making the (slightly obvious) comparison’s between Gaddafi’s regime and the forgotten colossus in Shelley’s Ozymandias.

However, as talk turns to what Libya and the Middle East will do next I think a probably more profound literary allusion would be George Orwell. Or more specifically, the final words of his 1945 novella Animal Farm:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from
pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Continue reading After The Fall: What’s Next For The Middle East?