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Demographic Demands: Long-term solutions to long-term problems in Afghanistan July 8, 2010

Posted by Elizabeth Cutler in Analysis.
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Afghanistan owns the attention of policymakers throughout the national security apparatus.  A change in military command and a recent cut to aid spending have forced our overall strategy back onto the discussion table. This time around, our strategy must account for Afghanistan’s frequently-overlooked youth bulge.

The Afghan population nearly quadrupled over the past 60 years.  The result is a very youthful country – 43% of their current population is under the age of 14. Knowing that children are the future, the youth in this bulge will define Afghanistan even as we try to shape it.

Such an imbalance promises to exacerbate already-rampant unemployment, leading to social and political dissatisfaction. At the same time, success for the American operation rests largely on the Afghan people supporting, or at least accepting, it.  Building that base despite these troubling demographics is an inherently long-term problem requiring a long-term solution.

That long-term solution can be found in the very kind of development aid cut last week by Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the House Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations Appropriations.  Rep. Lowey cut $3.9 billion in foreign aid funding from Afghanistan amid reports of corruption and lack of accountability for American dollars in Afghanistan. Though the rationale behind this action is valid, the choice itself is misguided for reasons explained by Budget Insight among others.

Afghanistan presents numerous challenges and issues that require more than one kind of solution for the foreseeable future. Military operations cannot help the fact that the number of school-age children in Afghanistan—a number that grew by over 3% in 2009—greatly exceed the capacity of the limited educational facilities currently available. As the Stimson Center’s demographer-in-residence Richard Cincotta wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last fall, “even if the Taliban stopped destroying schools and obstructing attendance, the government would face a momentous challenge in furnishing classrooms and teachers for this burgeoning generation.”  That’s a very big and unlikely “if.”

Approaching the issue from the opposite perspective, this youth bulge helps explain why the Taliban encounters little difficulty in attracting new recruits to their cause.  When the educational system and labor force cannot handle such an imbalanced population, the Taliban offers a viable alternative.

As a result, the demographic imbalance in Afghanistan ought to be a more prominent concern in developing our strategy there. In order to avoid dealing with a far more challenging Afghanistan in the future, the U.S. needs to put more funding—not less—into establishing long-term solutions today. Education lies at the heart of a thriving democracy. To even hope of seeing genuine democratic development in Afghanistan means that we have to support and enable the expansion of local educational infrastructure so that this hope has a fighting chance of becoming a reality.

This is not about creating American curricula in Afghanistan; rather, it is about facilitating a central component of the democratic system that we ostensibly aim to establish. A glance at the breakdown of the population captures the extreme nature of the population imbalance and how it will progress over the next few decades. Long-term problems require long-term solutions, and the solution here is development aid directed at addressing Afghanistan’s “youth bulge” and the challenges that it will inevitable cause in the years to come.  Rep. Lowey would be well-advised to restore it.



1. Barak - July 8, 2010

Good point. Demography strongly affects politics and political stability, more broadly. A large population of unemployed young men, in particular, is a real warning sign. The Taliban will not have to do much to recruit them as they are cheap to employ and probably frustrated over the lack of economic opportunity they see.

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