Picture Afghanistan two decades from now. Difficult? Not really -- if you're a demographer.
The two agencies that independently publish population estimates -- the U.N. Population Division and the U.S. Census Bureau's International Programs Center -- routinely project an array of demographic statistics for the world's nearly 200 countries on a timeframe of decades. Until now, the U.S. and U.N. agencies closely matched one another's projections for an Afghanistan-to-be. Not anymore. The U.N. believes Afghanistan's population (around 28 million today) will pass the 50 million mark by 2030, whereas the Census Bureau foresees a 2030 population under 43 million.
If the Census Bureau's prognostications are right -- if Afghanistan experiences a sharp decline in family size and slower subsequent growth -- this change would represent a milestone in Afghanistan's development. But if Afghan population growth remains at a high level, auguring a continued surfeit of young job seekers, their disaffection and armed violence, the breakdown of schooling and health services, and the perpetuation of high fertility, it bodes very poorly indeed.
Unbeknownst to much of the foreign-policy community, the population of this impoverished Texas-sized pseudo-state is among the world's fastest growing. In 1950, there were barely 8 million Afghans, a population about the same size as New York City today. Since then, the population has nearly quadrupled, despite horrendous rates of childhood death and three decades of warfare.
This trend, should its pace continue, guarantees a lengthy perpetuation of Afghanistan's extraordinary "youth bulge." Today over half of the country's adults are 15-to-29 year olds, compared with only 26 percent in the United States. So much competition in an opportunity-sparse society is bad news for young men seeking employment or land ownership -- and good news for extremist recruiters.
This pace of growth strains government services as well. This year alone, Afghanistan's school-age population grew by more than 3 percent, or 250,000 children. Even if the Taliban stopped destroying schools and obstructing attendance, the government would face a momentous challenge in furnishing enough classrooms and teachers for this burgeoning generation.
These population factors, if unaddressed, diminish the possibility that a coherent Afghan state, if one emerges, could remain intact. Then why have we heard so little mention of this issue from either the Afghan or U.S. governments, or for that matter, the press? Perhaps because an honest discussion leads unavoidably to two touchy (and tightly interwoven) topics: the status of Afghan women and the size of Afghan families.