Here's why there's an urgent need to invest in Afghan youth

Afghanistan is one of the countries with the highest percentage of young people — more than 60 percent are under the age of 30. In the U.S., people born between 1980 and 1999 are called millennials. In Afghanistan, we do not use the term “millennial” as often, perhaps the word “youth” is a better fit.

Call it the millennials or the youth, this demographic of people in Afghanistan were born during the end of the Cold War, when the Red Army occupied the country. They grew up in a period when the Soviet Union withdrew and events such as the Afghan Civil War, the Taliban theocracy and, eventually, the birth of the current system of democracy followed. Today, security and economic challenges are still obstacles to youth’s progress.

The security situation across the country is dire. The Afghan government is fighting a tenacious insurgency led by the Taliban and elements of the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2015 alone, 16,000 servicemen of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) either died and or were wounded, while nearly 3,500 civilians were killed and 7,500 were injured.

In the first half of 2016, casualty numbers were slightly higher, with the insurgents running another violent campaign challenging central government’s ability to hold onto the grasp of provinces such as Helmand and Kunduz.

Afghanistan’s economy remains heavily donor-dependent. More than 80 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from international assistance. This is despite an incremental increase of revenues and tax collection. The drawdown of international presence in the country, especially the withdrawal of NATO in 2014, had significant impact on the Afghan economy. Thousands of Afghans have lost their jobs, and private businesses that catered to NATO slowed down. The unemployment rate in Afghanistan is at 40 percent, and a bulk of the unemployed is youth.

Thousands have left the country, both due to insecurity and economic problems. This year alone, some 200,000 arrived in Europe, but most may be sent back under a new deal between Europe and the Afghan government.

While fighting is underway in several provinces, opium cultivation has been blooming. The drug economy contributes to the insurgency machine. It also damages society through addiction. Nearly 3 million Afghans are addicted to narcotics. The country produces some 80 percent of the world’s opium supply.

Against all odds, Afghanistan’s youth have made significant progress, which should be applauded and sustained. Some 8 million Afghan boys and girls attend primary and high schools. There are over 70 private and public universities across the country, some with international standards such as the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).  

Many Afghans are trying to change Afghanistan’s image from how it’s portrayed in the media. A graffiti art group called “Art Lord” in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, has decorated the concrete security walls surrounding the city with drawings and messages that bring hope and awareness about social issues such as corruption. A young man, Lotfullah Najafizada, runs a 24-hour news channel despite continuous threats he and his colleagues face. A marathon has recently taken place in the beautiful valley of Bamyan, where both men and women participated, breaking taboos. The School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), an all-girls private school, provides “rigorous education that promotes critical thinking, a sense of purpose, and respect for self and others.”

Courtesy to young Afghans, 2015 and 2016 witnessed unprecedented peaceful protests in Kabul, demonstrating civil and political maturity in the Afghan society. The first round of demonstrations took place in response to the abduction of a group of Hazaras after the government had failed to bring them back home safely. The second round of major protests took place when Hazaras opposed the government’s plan to execute an electricity project that would bypass the Central Highland in Hazarajat, where Hazaras predominantly live. Protests were peaceful until a bomb blast brutally killed and injured scores of protesters during the second round. ISIS later claimed responsibility. The protesters used Facebook and Twitter to mobilize masses and raise awareness about the events.

The challenges facing Afghan youth are not only socio-economic but also physical and psychological. Our journey toward peace will be long but it is important to create opportunities along the way. The government, civil society and the international community need to proactively address the legitimate grievances of the Afghan youth through economic and social initiatives that create jobs, sponsor education and offer platforms where young Afghans can be productive.

We cannot merely rely on the notion that Afghanistan is a “country of the youth” and that it can heal itself by itself. The “young country” is an equal opportunity for radicals looking to have more young men join their ranks. There's an urgent need to invest in Afghan youth.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV