Looking To The Future: Anticipating The Long-Term Impact Of Afghanistan’s Youth Bulge

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By Elizabeth Cutler – The U.S. strategy to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan will require the U.S. to balance both the longer-term challenge of Afghanistan’s demography and the short-term challenges of violence and economic need.  With one of the youngest populations in the world, Afghanistan’s future stability will require long-term commitments from the international community for development assistance. In the face of a growing insurgency in the south, security will increasingly become a priority for the U.S. and its allies. Yet pressures to cut aid and make Afghanistan’s current government more accountable may be at cross purposes with ways to improve Afghanistan’s long-term prospects for stability.

A glance at the breakdown of the population captures the extreme nature of the population imbalance and the challenges it faces in the next few decades. The Afghan population nearly quadrupled over the past 60 years, 43 percent of which is under the age of 14. Out of a total population of 30 million citizens, this cohort accounts for approximately 12.5 million citizens. The result is a very youthful country. As a point of comparison, 20 percent of the American population is under the age of 14 years. Meeting the education and health needs of these youth will define the future of Afghanistan. Such an imbalance will exacerbate the already-rampant unemployment rate, potentially leading to high levels of social and political dissatisfaction. Widespread dissatisfaction within society would not bode well for the peaceful and stable state that the U.S. envisions for Afghanistsan. 

At the same time, the success of the American operation rests largely on the Afghan people supporting, or at least, accepting it.  In light of the demographic imbalance, building that base is an inherently a long-term development problem requiring a long-term solution. This solution will require the kind of foreign-aid funding recently cut by Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the House Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations Appropriations ($3.9 billion). Based on reports of local corruption and lack of accountability for American spending in Afghanistan, her rationale has validity, but it does not necessarily solve the root causes of corruption, and will hinder the long-term development of Afghanistan.

The stabilization of Afghanistan will present numerous challenges that require more than one kind of solution. For example, military operations cannot build the capacity of Afghanistan’s limited education facilities. Because education lies at the heart of a thriving democracy, to even hope of seeing genuine democratic development in Afghanistan requires the expansion of local educational capacity and infrastructure. This is not about creating and promoting American curricula in Afghanistan; rather, it is about facilitating a central component of the democratic system. The number of school-age children in Afghanistan in 2009 alone grew by more than 3 percent. More funding—not less— will give this hope, of a democratic Afghanistan, a fighting chance of becoming a reality.

Richard Cincotta, the Stimson Center’s demographer-in-residence, wrote 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 remains a very big “if.”

Approaching the issue from the opposite perspective, this youth bulge provides the Taliban a larger pool of dissatisfied Afghans from which to attract new recruits.  When the educational system and labor market cannot provide for the population, the Taliban may offer a viable alternative. In short, this population imbalance may not only increase the number of willing militants, but also generate greater domestic support for the Taliban.

This also presents a formidable challenge to the work that the U.S. has done, and will continue to do, towards fostering a sustainable Afghan democracy.  As the U.S. seeks to facilitate durable stability, and eventually peace and prosperity, in Afghanistan, its strategy could benefit from being cognizant of the future ripple effects caused by the current youth bulge. Today’s overflow of children and young adolescents will require sufficient education facilities, healthcare, employment, and housing as they grow up. While no one can predict exactly what will happen in Afghanistan in the years to come, the U.S. needs to adopt a long-term purview of what is an inherently long-term problem, and a central factor in the overall success of its strategy in Afghanistan. 

The graph depicted here was originally featured in Richard Cincotta’s November 16, 2009 article on, “Could Demography Save Afghanistan?” Additional facts come from the CIA World Factbook. 


Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Tania Reid, Afghan Refugee Camp:

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