Robert Walker Robert J. Walker, 3/13/2009 [Archive]

The Other Afghan Surge

The Other Afghan Surge

By Robert J. Walker

Despite President Obama's decision last month to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, many experts warn that a military 'surge' will not bring about a quick victory.Some suggest that it could take another 15 to 20 years to achieve stability in one of the world's poorest countries. If so, maybe it's time to look at the other Afghan surge: its population growth.

It's been seven years now since George W. Bush committed American troops to Afghanistan.Since then, Afghanistan's population has jumped by 22 percent, and under current projections, its population will be twice as large in 2026 as it was in 2001.That's because the average Afghan woman has almost seven children, one of the highest fertility rates in the world.

As a consequence, Afghanistan has exceptionally high infant and maternal mortality rates, and the growth of more than half of the children under the age of five is stunted by malnutrition.Forty-five percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 15.One-third of Afghan children, including 70 percent of girls, are not attending school.As a result, two out of five adult males are illiterate.

In the dry and rocky soil of Afghanistan, it's hard to grow crops.Every year, the UN helps to feeds 4-5 million Afghans, but it's not enough. Unable to grow enough food to feed themselves, many Afghan farmers get their food the only way they know how:they grow and sell poppy for cash.

Population growth doesn't bode well for the future of Afghan stability. If history and demography are accurate indicators, many of the young children who beg in the streets of Kabul today will begin bearing children in less than a decade and, if things go poorly, their children may one day be bearing arms for the Taliban.

If 68,000 U.S and foreign troops have difficulty securing Afghanistan today, policy makers should be asking themselves, how difficult will it be to stabilize the country when it has twice that number of people?

Afghanistan is not the only unstable country. There are more than a dozen failing states caught in a spiral of rising population and grinding poverty. Security experts warn that Pakistan, where fertility rates are also very high, could become a failed state. Since the turn of the millennium, Pakistan's population has climbed by almost 27 million, an increase of nearly 20 percent.

Last year, Gen Hayden, the director of the CIA, warned that rapid population growth 'in poor, fragile states' is a major threat to global security and 'will create a situation that will likely fuel instability and extremism—not just in those areas, but beyond them as well'.

One reason why we rarely hear of the 'population problem' anymore is that it's considered politically incorrect to worry about the fertility rates of people in poor countries.But one of the major reasons that many countries still struggle with extreme poverty is rapid population growth.Women in many poor countries today still lack knowledge of, and access to, modern methods of contraception, and that often means that many of their children will be malnourished, unable to attend school, and condemned to a life of poverty.

Today, more than 100 million women in developing countries want to space or limit childbearing, but are not using modern methods of birth control, largely because they lack information or access to family planning services. Citing a decline in the real-dollar level of U.S. support for international family planning assistance since 1994, five former directors of USAID's family assistance program recently urged Congress to more than double the existing level of U.S. aid.Such assistance is far less costly than fighting a prolonged war.

If high fertility rates condemn future Afghan generations to severe poverty and instability, don't pity us; pity them.For whatever calamities that we, as Americans, might suffer because of a failing Afghan state, the harm that will befall the Afghan people will likely be far greater.So, for their sakes—and ours—let us commit ourselves to the goal of ensuring that every woman in the world, not just every Afghan woman, has access to family planning information and modern methods of contraception.

Mr. Walker is executive vice president of The Population Institute, a nonprofit organization working to achieve a world population that can live in harmony with the planet. Mr. Walker can be contacted at

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