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Afghanistan's middle class: What will happen to us when the US leaves?

After the Taliban's ouster in 2001, thousands of Afghans found high-paying jobs in Kabul. As Westerners leave ahead of 2014, many Afghans' new middle-class lifestyle may be in danger.

By Halima KazemCorrespondent / August 2, 2013

An Afghan sweet worker makes cookies during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 27, 2013.

Allauddin Khan/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

It’s an hour before sunset and 30-year-old Besmellah Khurram is feverishly texting his group of friends to find out which Kabul restaurant they should meet at to break their day-long fast.

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“Ramadan is a great time for me because sometimes I break the fast with my family and sometimes with a large group of friends at one of Kabul’s busy restaurants,” says Mr. Khurram.

Khurram and his friends are enjoying some of the luxuries that have popped up in the past decade for the middle class in Afghanistan, such as disposable income to spend on eating out and purchasing the latest mobile phones, laptops, and even cars.

However, much of this newly established and mostly urban middle class is in danger of rapidly shrinking once again as more international aid projects and nongovernmental organizations shut down ahead of the 2014 transition, when most international security forces will leave Afghanistan and the country will be expected to govern itself without the direct help of the international community.

“Young working Afghans like me and my friends are who sustain the local businesses. If we lose our jobs, many of these local businesses will fail,” says Khurram, a graduate of Kabul University’s school of economics.

Khurram works as a manager for a private sector development project run by the German Society for International Cooperation, an aid organization. He says many of his friends also work for various international aid organizations or projects run by the US military and make anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 a month, putting them in Kabul's upper middle class. 

This is much higher than the average per capita income in Afghanistan, which according to the World Bank is $528. However uneven distribution of international aid and private investment have created large disparities between urban and rural income levels.

The high salaries, along with lucrative military and security contracts, have created a financial bubble in Afghanistan. Since 2001, this bubble has pushed up cost of living and contributed to the growth of the Afghan middle class, especially in urban areas.

Although official statistics or a formal definition of the middle class are not available, some economists estimate that the Afghan middle class may have grown from almost zero in 2001 to as much as 10 to 15 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated population of 27.5 million today. Based on that estimate, somewhere between 2.75 and 4.13 million Afghans now fall into the various levels of the middle class. 

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