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Alarms over Afghanistan as a future 'threat' are irrational

But poverty, climate stress, and instability make the people who live there, and the strength of any new government, vulnerable.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

How alarmed should we be that the Taliban have taken over governing Afghanistan?

If you are a humanitarian, ethicist, proponent of equal rights and civil liberties, or an advocate of good governance you should be very alarmed. If you are forecasting threats to U.S. strategic interest, probably not so much. The Taliban rule over a devastated, deeply impoverished country, whose prospects are grimmer than ever. Population growth, economic woes, and severe and increasing ecological problems are likely to constrain the Taliban’s ability to make trouble for anyone else.

Consider this: between 1996, when the Taliban first took over the country, and today, as they resume power, the country’s population has doubled from roughly 19 million to 38 million. The rate of population growth has slowed somewhat, but is still rising by over 2.3 percent every year, which implies that the population will roughly double again by mid-century. Afghan women are still having an average of over 4 children— the “total fertility rate” is now just under 4.5  — during their lives. The key factor in reducing fertility is the education and other forms of empowerment of women. Twenty years ago, only 1 in 20 Afghan women was literate; today, roughly one in three can read and write, while over half of young women aged 15-24 are literate. Will the Taliban force women out of schools? We don’t know, of course, but if they do, they will ensure a rebound in fertility, exacerbating their already daunting demographic problems.

This population subsists in a parlous economy. Output per person, at just over $2,000 per year, is one of the lowest in the world, 213th out of 228 countries. Over half the population is below the (very low) national poverty line. Eleven million Afghans are “food insecure,” meaning that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The trade deficit, of around $6 billion, amounts to 30 percent of GDP; its financing is entirely dependent on external assistance, which will decrease sharply depending on the quality of Taliban governance. Unemployment is estimated at over 20 percent; just under half of working Afghans are farmers, and some 60 percent depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their meager livelihoods. 

These rural livelihoods are increasingly threatened by drought. These have devastated wide areas of the country repeatedly in recent years (e.g., 2007, 2018, 2021). As one observer put it, “In 2018, some 250,000 people fled their homes as waters ran dry. Farmers left behind parched fields, and herders sold off livestock at a fraction of their costs. In western Afghanistan, families fled to barebone tent camps on the edges of places like Herat city, where tens of thousands remain today, unwilling or unable to return home.”  Necephor Mghendi, of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, says, “This is one of the most severe droughts ever in Afghanistan.” Snow and rainfall were only about half of their normal levels in parts of the country during the past warm winter triggered by La Nina conditions. And the UK Department of International Development believes, “Drought is likely to be regarded as the norm by 2030, rather than as a temporary or cyclical event.” 

As in the Western United States, so too in Afghanistan: global warming generates ever more severe droughts. According to the World Bank:

 Afghanistan faces rates of warming higher than the global average… Rises in the annual maximum and minimum temperature are projected to be greater than the rise in average temperature, likely amplifying the pressure on human health, livelihoods, and ecosystems… an increase in the incidence of drought conditions is very likely…Over the long-term, loss of glaciers could fundamentally disrupt regional water and hydropower supplies… Events over the early 21st century show the extreme vulnerability of Afghanistan’s communities to hazards such as drought and flash flooding. This vulnerability is amplified by poverty, undernourishment, food insecurity, and inequality.

In recent years, premature melting of the snowpack in the Afghan highlands has burst dams, washed away villages and inundated fields before they could be planted. Taking all these factors into account, the University of Notre Dame’s widely referenced UND-GAIN Index, a measure of the vulnerability of a country to global warming and other environmental stressors, ranks Afghanistan as the eighth most vulnerable country in the world

Such an ill-starred country cannot pose a serious threat to fundamental American interests. Mired in extreme poverty, reliant on agricultural production that will be incinerated by climate change in the near future, cut off from international assistance, Afghanistan is as weak as a country could possibly be. It is, of course, possible that the near “failed state” nature of the country could lead to opportunities for international jihadi terrorists to resume their activities. The Taliban, owing to the very weakness of their country, might prove unwilling or unable to prevent al-Qaeda or some other like-minded organization devoted to carrying out mass casualty attacks on American soil from embedding itself in Afghanistan.

But this weakness will also leave it vulnerable to renewed intervention. These will not take the shape of previous invasions. Russia and the United States have learned their lessons and Iran lacks the power to control Afghan territory. Intervention will come in the form of intelligence driven airstrikes or other remotely launched attacks unaccompanied by the lavish application of economic assistance.  The fact is that this is not September 10, 2001. The U.S. is much harder to penetrate; there are 1.9 million people on the no-fly list; intelligence collection, surveillance and interagency cooperation much better, and as we have seen, concerns about collateral damage resulting from U.S. strikes are not quite as profound as they were before 9/11.

Afghanistan’s future is appalling, and, yes, and transnational militants can make themselves at home there, but hyperventilation about the threat it poses to the United States is just irrational.

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