What Afghanistan needs: job creation
A military surge won't defeat the Taliban. A jobs surge could.
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Afghanistan's population is one of the youngest in the world. Nearly half of Afghans are younger than 15 years old. Thanks to efforts by private citizens, nongovernmental organizations, and the international community, many of these children and teens – including girls – are being educated. When they graduate, they will struggle to enter a labor market in which there is roughly 40 percent unemployment. The alternative may be to join the insurgency or leave the country. Both options will make rebuilding Afghanistan that much harder.Skip to next paragraph
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In a White House briefing just before Mr. Obama's announcement of the military surge, Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, mentioned that Afghan leaders wanted the US to help them "build security" in the country since once security was achieved, "the rest will follow."
Actually, the rest will not follow. Security is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for job creation. Good security did not lead to job creation in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s. Nor has it led to job creation in New York today. When confronting a crisis, policymakers must often adopt extraordinary measures. To help get 15 million jobless Americans working again, Obama is pushing for an aggressive jobs bill, despite a dismal deficit.
Unemployment in Afghanistan is far worse – and the response should be far more aggressive. Yet so far funding has been misdirected. Of $40 billion in US-provided assistance to the country since the start of the war, roughly half supported local security forces, while the other half bolstered general economic and social programs. Investment and job creation must attract a growing share of funding going forward. While $20 billion in general support for these programs may sound like a lot, it pales next to the $210 billion spent by the Department of Defense on the Afghan war so far.
Aid and private investment should go hand in hand. With Afghans holding an estimated $16 billion abroad and lots of money under the mattress, investment opportunities should be created at home both for Afghans and for foreign investors. These opportunities could include the creation of "reconstruction zones" for assembling, processing, and exporting products made by low-skilled workers under preferential trade arrangements, public-private infrastructure development projects, and start-ups.
A larger investment in job creation as part of an effective rebuilding strategy could reduce the enormous cost of financing military operations in Afghanistan. This would not only have a welcome fiscal impact on the US budget, but more important, it would allow American troops to come home sooner.
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