Malthusian Afghanistan
Sep 12, 2010

Malthusian Afghanistan

The nature of the war in Afghanistan, with belligerents such as the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Internationals, is well discussed in our public discourse. I have done so myself. What is discussed much less is some of the broader trends that lead to the seemingly unending manifestations of conflicts that the Taliban embody. What might be these larger factors? Is it simply the nature of their culture or perhaps of their religion- as if often implied by the media? What I present here is some statistics and commentary showing how population pressures, food supplies and other environmental concerns - classic Malthusian concerns - may well be a very important factor that has led to such strife over such a long time.
Birth rate by country (source: wiki)


Let us consider the statistics. Firstly, the above picture shows Afghanistan with the 3rd highest (highest outside Africa) birthrate in the world at an astonishing 7.5 births per woman. Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan also ranks 3rd highest in terms of population growth...a rate that has been more or less the same for the last half century. This population growth is unsustainable from the perspective of the jobs market with 40% unemployment. Two thirds of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day. Agriculture, which dominates the "official" economy (some 80% of it) has reversed from Afghanistan being a larger net exporter to a net importer of food reliant on foreign aid. Opium and hashish production (roughly a third of the total, unofficial, economy) have taken over nontrivial proportions of the agricultural business which only takes land away from local food production. Moreover, Afghanistan ranks highest in the world in a metric that considers "food stability" or the stable access to food, which is why things like the 2008 food crisis in Afghanistan which was caused by droughts was so pervasive in it's consequences. The World Food Program was only able to reach some 38% of it's intended recipients and most of those given unsatisfactory levels despite enormous international funding. It should be noted that these numbers represent averages, local variations can be far more intense, for example the unemployment rate among younger populations far exceeds that of older population where land ownership is much higher and the same is true of various regional discrepancies far exceeding the norm.


What conclusions can we draw from these statistics? Firstly, we must acknowledge that Afghanistan is unequivocally a failed state where the people are legitimately suffering in some of the worst conditions in the world. Secondly, we note how issues of high population and population growth relative to the amount of jobs and capacity for food production result in many of these failures. As we shall see, these kind of "Malthusian" (although this term implies an alarmism I don't wish to fully convey) issues play a role in some of the manifestations of conflict such as the Taliban.

The Taliban draws a lot of its sources of power from these issues and perhaps can be even seen as the realization of these issues in a direct conflict. The large amount of young, landless, unemployed, poverty stricken people is the perfect group not just for actual recruits to a cause like the Taliban but also as a populist motivation for something seen as the way forward to reduce the suffering (ie through Pashtun hegemony or at least independence and through religious glorification). Specifically, because the Taliban where relatively better financed than the average young person described above (owing to international backing from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to drug and gun smuggling, to customs revenue and whatnot) the Taliban were able to provide these people with basic food, a physical vocation and a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It is hardly surprising then that the Taliban garnered so much popular support among Pashtun people. It is in this sense that the Taliban is the realization of these Malthusian concerns since it is them that make the Taliban both successful and popular.  Furthermore, it is often implicitly or explicitly implied that the Taliban is an evil, amoral religious group and that its support and participation is because of people who are evil, amoral and share these same religious views. As we have seen however,  issues of overpopulation, endemic unemployment, saturated agricultural land use all lead to the Taliban in ways perhaps more compelling than simply a shared religious and political ideology.  The same can be said for many of the northern alliance warlords and the support for their large, aggressive, atrocity-proned militias. In the recent Pakistani floods which have left millions devastated it is estimated the Taliban is attempting to recruit perhaps 50,000 members from a population artificially and spontaneously plunged into the horrors that often face afghanis daily.

I should pause to note that poverty rates, population rates, violence rates and culture are all highly entwined and interrelated. To imply, especially at this shallow a level of analysis, that any one factor (such as population ones) dominate would go too far, I merely wish to establish this factor as a legitimate one, among many others. We have just explored the relationship where by population pressures lead to violence in the Taliban. However the reverse is also true as violence prevents the kind of development in infrastructure, economies and increased food production that alleviates population pressures. Likewise with poverty which affects and is affected by both of these other factors. This relationship where the factors of overpopulation (relative to food and job supplies), poverty and violence overlap and support itself is common in many places around the world but in Afghanistan we see a particularly striking  confluence of all three factors each and all together near the worst into world. Finally we have the more nebulous consideration that the role of culture (and in particular religion) plays; I won't attempt to be comprehensive but will instead note two ways culture affects things on both sides. Firstly we note that cultural roles for women as wives and childbearers with limited participation in non household work is higher in afghanistan than many other countries currently which increases population. Many comparative studied have shown that empowering women in the workplace in developing countries lowers the fertility rates. On the otherside, unlike religions such as Christianity which have long disincentivized passive or active birth control methods, Islam has little such directs and passive birth control methods (such as emphasizing a wait time between pregnancies) are often widespread via local mullahs which have also, incidentally, been very receptive to NGO attempts to spread condom usage.

Once we acknowledge the importance of the factors we have discussed in the underlying populist motivations for the Taliban and violence in general, we can apply this to the question of what we should be doing differently in the war effort. I think it is clear that the need to address these basic factors of an unfed, unemployed impoverished population must be aggressively combated against for they lead to the issues of security and Taliban resurgence that we fight every day. Through development of roads, irrigation systems, schools and healthcare, micro-finance and other economic factors needed to spur local businesses we can reduce the force of these pressures that leads to militancy and chaos. One problem the NGOs faced was how willing the excess population was to flood to places like Kabul after security and aid started rolling out which is a testament to the willingness of literally millions to live in the squalor of slums over traditional homes because the population pressures made fighting over the few scrapes of aid preferable. Most of the early estimates for the amount of people and thus amount of supplies needed were grossly underestimated. Compound these population pressure with the several million refugees living outside Afghanistan who will come back in as the situation improves. That said, they bring with them fresh hope, new skills and international connections to aid in building a better Afghanistan. That there are enormous challenges is not denied, but neither to shall be the idea that tackling these issues which provide the central background issues to the current problems in Afghanistan is going to be paramount in our goal for a better Afghanistan.

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