Kabul's Economy Is Worse Than Its Security Issues

Contrary to what you might expect, Afghans are more worried about money than violence.

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A woman walks past men selling bread at a local market in Kabul on March 19, 2013. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Last month, President Hamid Karzai issued a fierce rebuke of the United States. As if having imbibed the volatility of his surroundings, he accused American forces of inflaming fears of violence regarding the 2014 withdrawal.

The reaction has been swift and derisive. Yet while most agree that Karzai was wrong with respect to American intentions, what's less understood is that he may also have been wrong about local sentiment. Many Afghans do fear violence after 2014, but, for now, their focus is on something far more relatable: recession.

In February, I met with a group of university students in Kabul to discuss this very issue. Young and entrepreneurial, the students I spoke to are part of a new generation of Afghans. They plot their careers carefully, and, conscious or not, they have grown accustomed to an economy based on international aid.

But whispers of a downturn have made them uneasy. "When I have concerns, it is about the economic part, more so than the security part," said Edress, a 23-year-old business student and aspiring journalist. His classmate shares similar worries. "The millionaires are no longer making investments," said Waris, 24. "And in some areas, housing is down by almost half from the year before."

These students are not alone. In a 2012 survey of Kabul residents, the Asia Foundation found that "unemployment" outranked "insecurity" as the leading concern regarding Afghanistan's future. (The answer "poor economy" wasn't far behind.) The survey followed a World Bank report several months earlier that highlighted a serious risk of recession in Afghanistan when the international community departs.

Why are these newfound economic jitters important? First, as a practical matter, Afghanistan's future will be shaped almost entirely by its younger generations. Approximately 70 percent of Afghanistan's population is under 30, and the country's median age is an astonishing 17.9 years. Losing economic momentum now means that the vast majority of these individuals will collide with a stagnant economy just as they enter the workforce.

Second, for the first time in many years, Afghanistan's future is set to be determined by individuals that are not defined by the darkest chapters of its past. Afghanistan's age demographics carry a startling implication: given the length of the U.S. intervention, now in its twelfth year, a huge swath of Afghanistan no longer remembers life under the Taliban government. In an unlikely, perhaps accidental development, the sheer length of America's involvement may have allowed for generational change.

Despite what's at stake, however, the international community remains lukewarm in its commitment to Afghanistan's economic future. At a meeting of international donors on July 7, 2012, pledges from the international community fell $2 billion per year short of what Afghanistan's central bank had requested. Further, many financial commitments were tied to aggressive anticorruption objectives. From the perspective of the donors, these are understandable goals, but history suggests that they may be difficult to accomplish quickly.

The result, at least among younger generations, is a subtle but clear change in risk assessments. Edrees, for example, aims to finish his degree in 2014, and he has opted not to complete additional studies. Although he didn't say so explicitly, the timing is unlikely to be a coincidence. In fact, a number of the students with whom I spoke had structured their study plans around 2014. (Waris was the latest of the group, aiming to finish in early 2015.)

In an unconscious acknowledgement of their uncertainty, the students speak in euphemisms. "I cannot say what will happen when the time arrives," said one student. "The media talks a lot about what happens after," said another. Although it may seem obvious, the exact nature of what they were referring to is difficult to ascertain. The American troop withdrawal? A recession? The first major power grab by the Taliban? Perhaps, if asked, they wouldn't quite know either. For now, the term "2014" serves as a less dramatic catchall--a way of containing the unwieldy and unknowable.

But here, in this unknowable space, is where so much of Afghanistan's future will be determined. The uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan's economy is injecting fear into the country at a time when its youngest generations are in serious need of reassurance.