Afghans are living longer? Yes, but not thanks to NATO

The claim that Western intervention in Afghanistan has dramatically improved life expectancy is a surprisingly durable myth.

Rahmat Gul/AP
The 30 years of war that followed a Soviet invasion in 1979 has been, surprisingly, a time of uplift for the lifespan of the average Afghan.

In writing up a post on Afghanistan considering reintroducing stoning adulterers to death to its legal system I came across several references to an old chestnut that's been peddled for years by Western officials. The claim is that war is good for longevity. Namely, that Afghan life expectancy has increased by 20 years since the US-led invasion in 2002.

I first came across that claim in 2011, when US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker made the assertion to the hawkish Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl. I wrote skeptically about it at the time, arguing that life expectancy rarely, if ever, improves dramatically in countries at war and that, at any rate, good statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan. 

The claim is still being bandied about, usually to support the case for an extended military effort in Afghanistan. Adm. James S. Stavridis, recently retired as supreme commander of NATO, wrote in August: "Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time."

The data compiled at Hans Rosling's Gapminder has Afghanistan's life expectancy at birth at 61 years for 2012 and at 56 years for 2003. While a 9 percent improvement in a decade is nothing to sneeze at, it's not a 48 percent increase. 

But that's hardly the most interesting part. In September 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which persisted through the start of 2002. What happened to life expectancy in those years? Well, life expectancy at birth rose from 53 years in 1996 to 56 years in 2002 - a 5.7 percent gain. Should this statistic be used to argue that the Taliban should be restored to power?

Of course not. But the steady improvement in life expectancy in a country that has been wracked by war for decades, and is among the world's poorest, is a reminder that correlation is not causation. Afghanistan's gains track similar gains across South Asia. Both Pakistan and India have made similar, linear strides in life expectancy. In the 1980s, when Afghanistan was wracked by civil war, Gapminder data shows life expectancy improved from 41 years to 48, an astonishing improvement of 17 percent. Was the Soviet Union therefore a better foreign steward for Afghanistan than the US during its decade-long occupation?

What's at work here are regional and global trends: The spread of vaccines, cheaper food, and better understanding of hygiene combined with growing wealth. So, yes, Afghan life expectancy has soared while NATO has been in the country. Just as it soared when the Soviets and the Taliban were in charge.

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