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Afghan life expectancy has improved by 20 years since 2001?

The US ambassador to Afghanistan said so in a recent interview, and it's a stunning statistic if true. But it's probably not.

By Staff writer / September 13, 2011

US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker speaks during an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on the United States, at the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP

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Jackson Diehl, the hawkish deputy editor of The Washington Post's editorial page, wrote up an interview with US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker on Sept. 11 calling for "strategic patience" on the conflict there.

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In a classic case of bad timing given the extended Taliban attack in Kabul today, Ambassador Crocker told Mr. Diehl that "the biggest problem in Kabul is traffic."

Leaving aside concerns about endemic Afghan government corruption and the abuse of citizens by many anti-Taliban warlords who have been given prominent positions in the police and military by President Hamid Karzai's government, it's certainly true that Kabul has, by and large, been a safer place than Baghdad – another capital where Crocker has served – was at the height of the civil war there.

But a line in Diehl's article really jumped out at me. "Life expectancy [in Afghanistan] has increased by 20 years in the past decade." In the overall context of an article arguing for an extended involvement in Afghanistan based on humanitarian concerns, that's a stunning statistic.

It brought me up short because I'm aware of few, if any, countries in modern history where life expectancy improved dramatically in the course of a war, let alone by such a nearly unbelievable number. I asked a friend, who studies the public health effects of war, if he thought there was any possibility that Afghans today are living 20 years longer than they were 10 years ago, and he answered, "no."

I e-mailed Diehl asking where the number came from, pointing out that it seems to diverge from the CIA's reporting on Afghan life expectancy substantially. He was kind enough to reply, and said it was supplied by Crocker.

While data collection of all sorts is questionable and haphazard in Afghanistan, particularly since so many parts of the country are no-go zones for researchers and telephone penetration is low, it's possible that the ambassador is working off a data set that I'm not aware of.

But the CIA does keep track of such things. The CIA World Factbook, updated in August, says that the average Afghan life expectancy at birth is 45.02 years, ranking 220 in the world. The CIA's estimate of life expectancy in 2001 was 46.24.

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