Unrest in Tunisia: a sign of things to come in Afghanistan?

Virulent unrest in Northern Africa should be ringing alarm bells in Afghanistan. Widespread Afghan youth unemployment, not the Taliban, may soon become the largest of the US military’s worries as it delicately maneuvers itself out of the country.

There are upwards of 150,000 foreign soldiers supported by tens of thousands of private security personnel operating in Afghanistan. At first impression it would appear that Afghanistan's biggest troubles are the ongoing insurgency movements throughout the war-torn country. Moreover, it is already clear that the highly trumpeted coalition [of the willing] gains in the heartland of its chosen enemy are not backed up with local Afghan forces that are either up to the task or representative of the local culture, which further diminishes their staying power in a fight that is expected to continue after US and other foreign forces withdraw starting this year.

What many pundits fail to acknowledge, however, is that during the past 10 years of the US military occupation, a potentially explosive environment has been building up pressure that may not be easily defused, at least not by the one-off cash disbursements and make-work programs that have become standard practice among counter insurgency experts. The lack of real job opportunities that match the education of Afghan university students is leaving those that make up the bulk of the population (and the most healthy and productive) not only unemployed, but also disenchanted, with both their government and its foreign back-stoppers.

Efforts were made to modernize the Afghan education system in the mid 1970s following student protests, much like those that erupted in Paris in the 1960s. Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, education was further modified based on communist ideology and the student body and faculty were infiltrated by the ruthless Afghan secret police. Today, apart from those institutes and courses run by Western agencies, Afghan universities and institutes are still largely structured around the old system, with course curricula and faculty remaining out of touch with what is required in an open market. Consequently, students are left with uncompetitive professional skills when they enter the job market.  

The problem is further compounded by the fact that the jobs offered by Western nongovernmental organizations implementing development programs and the scores of foreign security companies operating in the country are not sustainable. These are but short-lived jobs that will be phased out based on vague security benchmarks, and in light of pressing economic situation and political realities back home in the US and Europe. The number of indirect jobs that this cottage industry produces in the local economy only underscores the delicate dependency on the vulnerable foreign presence. 

Most Afghan youth aspire to work with such organizations because the pay is higher than that found even in some top governmental institutions. To demonstrate a semblance of "capacity building" and other buzzwords like "Afghanization", roles and responsibilities are often spread thin in made up positions. The real justification, however, is to increase the number of positions needed so that companies can make percentage profits off of individual salaries, which are billed to the donor agencies, such as USAID, at the expense of the American people. Nevertheless, a job as simple as a radioman, coordinating vehicle movements for program staff, can be enough to support a large family and even multiple families in Afghanistan, and the size and needs of most Afghan families should not be underestimated.  

High youth unemployment, an issue which is already leading to serious unrest across northern African nations, and its causes within the largely obsolete Afghan educational system deserve greater attention. Alarm bells should be ringing in the US State Department and military command before even more unrest grips the already destabilized country. The US' hard-thought-out and fought-for exit strategy from Afghanistan could ultimately be derailed by a problem very few seem willing to confront or acknowledge in the first place.

About the author

Ian Carver has lived in Georgia since 2006 and has worked for the Human Rights Center based in Tbilisi. He visits Batumi on a regular basis.