Implications of High Unemployment in Afghanistan

Version 2.0

Prepared for Glocal JournalImplications of High Unemployment in Afghanistan

By: Abid Amiri

May 2010

Abstract. This paper looks at social and economical implications of high unemployment in Afghanistan, and if they are deteriorating the security and economy of Afghanistan. The findings show that implications of high unemployment in Afghanistan are destructive for its economy and domestic security. Lack of jobs in the country has led thousands of young Afghan men migrating to the neighboring countries. Afghanistan economy is now dependent on remittances. Unemployment has also led people to grow opium poppy, and others are encouraged to join the Taliban extremist groups. Trade of opium is the most beneficial and earns high revenue for the insurgents. The revenue is empowering the enemy of Afghanistan in fighting against the foreign and domestic troops. Taliban are using unemployed men as suicide attackers, battle forces, or laborers for implanting Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) on the side of the roads. As a result unemployment is the enemy of Afghanistan. It has a positive effect on the rise of violence and economic instability in Afghanistan.

Implications of High Unemployment in Afghanistan:

Labor migration, Insurgency and Opium Poppy Production (2001-2008)

Unemployment is the enemy of Afghanistan. The rate at which jobs have been diminishing is fluctuating between 20% and 50% since 2001.[1] The free market is in its embryonic stage, and it has left more than 40% of young Afghan men unemployed in 2008. The return of refugees from the neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran has significantly added to the unemployment issue. The unstable labor market and deteriorating security situation in the country have also set barriers for the government to decrease the unemployment rate. The implications of these high rates are devastating for the country’s economy and stability. Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. More than 11 million Afghans over the age of 15 cannot read or write.[2] These young illiterate men have no better alternatives for the high unemployment in the country but to migrate, to join the insurgent groups or to return back to the poppy farming. This paper will look at social and economical implications of high unemployment in Afghanistan, and if they are deteriorating the security and economy of Afghanistan.

According to Philip David McMichael – a scholar interested in studying social change from a world-historical perspective – “globalization is Janus-faced. It exaggerates the market culture at the same time as it intensifies its opposite – a growing culture of informal… activity.” This culture involves people working on the outer edge of the market, performing unregulated labor, or pursuing what are deemed illegal economic activities. In Afghanistan the free market has left many Afghan youth jobless making them use in the informal sectors run by the enemies of the country. Young unemployed men are targets of either the poppy growers or the Taliban. The emerging free market economy in Afghanistan has not provided the jobs needed for men. There are also those who are displaced due to lack of work; these structurally unemployed live in shantytowns or circulate the world. [3]Informalization Verses the African State is a model study case also applicable for Afghanistan’s current unemployment issue. In the case study Aili Mari Tripp – Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin- viewed the informal sector across Africa as a form of resistance. [4] Based on the Informalization theory of McMichael, globalization has contributed to immense job losses with cheap imports of foreign goods crowding out domestic products. As a result migration of young boys to the neighboring countries, opium poppy production and bloodshed have recently skyrocketed in the country.

Labor Migration

On October 7, 2001, a coalition of international forces led by the US declared war on the Taliban government. Following the September 11 attacks, the US and its allies pursued military action with the primary stated goal of eliminating Afghanistan as a safe haven for international terrorists. In the autumn and winter of 2001 international news showed footage of jubilant Afghans celebrating the fall of the Taliban.[5] As a result of the momentous changes in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, around 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran returned home, more than 3 million of them with assistance from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).[6] The economy of the country was at a standstill, because the Taliban government for five years was not widely recognized by the neighbors, except Pakistan; they didn’t have the expertise to run a stable government or an effective economy. The only functioning factories in Afghanistan were funded by international organizations to manufacture orthopedic limbs.

Due to 2 million refuge inflow from Pakistan and Iran in 2002 alone and lack of domestic production, Afghanistan became heavily dependent on imported goods from the neighboring countries to support them.[7] While jobs were created in Iran and Pakistan due to high exports to Afghanistan, the Afghan economy lurked idle and young men in the country remained unemployed. Afghanistan created a dependent economic relationship with its neighboring Pakistan, and Iran.  Islamabad and Tehran did much to foster this dependency. As a result, the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) which allows Afghanistan to import goods duty free through the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabia Sea was signed by Kabul, and Islamabad. Pakistan became the largest exporter to Afghanistan, with around US$ 1.7 billion in exports annually since 2001. On the other hand, Pakistan also happened to be a major export market for Afghan raw products, with about US$ 71 million exported to Pakistan every year equal to 21.8% of all Afghan exports.[8] Iran became the second largest exporter to Afghanistan with $312 million in 2007.[9] However, much of Afghanistan’s exports to Pakistan and Iran were raw materials, which were processed and used to produce consumer goods. The finished goods were frequently resold to Afghans at a higher price.

This disproportionate transaction with the neighbors kept the Afghan economy under-developed. The unemployment rate rose to 40% in 2008.[10] High prices of imported products and high unemployment forced the young Afghan men back to Iran and Pakistan in search of jobs. They were usually exploited, abused, tortured and humiliated by their employers. They would mostly travel illegally to those countries without a work visa. UNCHR surveyed 784 deported Afghans from Iran and Pakistan – the vast majority of them were single men. One of the Survey’s main conclusions was that “the high rate of unemployment, low wages and widespread poverty in Afghanistan are the major push factors for single men to migrate to Iran and Pakistan.” The current migration flow between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran is predominantly a labor migration issue, not a refugee issue, the UN study stressed.  The number of undocumented Afghans in Iran and Pakistan are unknown. In the last two years the Iranian authorities have deported more than 700,000 Afghans they claim have broken immigration laws and are working illegally. But an estimated US$500 million is sent back to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran in remittances per year, some six percent of Afghanistan’s national gross domestic product.[11] Labor migration ultimately created a remittance dependent economy for Afghanistan, which is a testimony of a deteriorate economy.

In an Oxfam survey when asked about the unemployment from 700 afghan participants, 17% stated that they are currently thinking of leaving the country. [12] Another UNCHR study shows that around 5% of young unemployed Afghan men migrate to the neighboring countries, Europe, Australia, and United States to escape unemployment and poverty.[13]The remaining 35% of jobless youth who can’t afford to leave the country remain jobless or relocate within Afghanistan. They are either targeted by the opium poppy producers or the Taliban insurgent groups.

Opium Poppy Production

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it has provided roughly US$229 million in food aid to Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime.[14]Some 230,000 tons of mixed food items have been donated by the World Food program. Most of the aid was delivered through food-for-work projects. This massive inflow of wheat and maize into the country through emergency food‐aid shipments was responsive to changes in relative commodity prices. Agricultural products such as wheat, corn, maize and fruit declined in price by as much as 15%.[15] According to McMichael, peasants under the development project were unable to survive the combined competition of cheap foods and high-tech farming in the countryside, so they migrated to cities.[16] In Afghanistan farmers found themselves in a restrained situation. They were unable to compete with cheap food in the market anymore. The government was also unable to help them find marketplace for the domestic products. Afghan peasants had no other option but to produce the most lucrative and illegal crop of opium poppy, in which they had a comparative advantage than any other country in the region. Farmers interviewed by a reporter said that:

“The government needs to at least limit these kinds of imports [such as apples grapes and grain] … in order to make them (farmers) competitive in the international market,” said Aqa. “It’s not a good time to introduce a free market in Afghanistan at the moment.”

“If the government doesn’t find us an export market and we don’t benefit from our agricultural products and suffer financial harm like past years … then we will have to return to poppy farming,” said Safatullah Khan, a farmer on the outskirts of Kabul.

Farmers said “they have to grow poppies to survive, because other options like wheat simply do not bring enough income.”[17]

Farmers like Aqa will always go for products with the highest benefit, especially with all the post-harvest problems. Afghan farmers found poppy production more advantageous than producing any other crops that have lower value in the market. They received about US$ 150/kg of dry opium.[18] High unemployment rate in country gave soaring benefits to the poppy farmers by hiring jobless youths at a lower wage. Those unemployed men who had farmlands returned back to growing poppy, and those who didn’t have land were hired by the farmers at a lower wage. It seems a better alternative than unemployment.

High unemployment rate in Afghanistan is reinforcing the notion of higher poppy production of opium. This phenomenon is clearly illustrated by the regression in figure 3, where it shows a positive correlation between the two. The rise of unemployment is constant with the increase in poppy production. The correlation seems strong enough to be a point of concern for the Afghan government. The drug trade remains the main source of revenue for the Taliban. Instability in the country is fueled by the profits from the opium trade. Higher drug production means higher income for the Taliban. Higher revenue for insurgent groups indicates that they have more supply of weapons, which stimulates the notion of instability, bloodshed, and violence in Afghanistan.In Afghanistan, annual opium production before the Taliban opium ban in 2001 was at about 3,000 metric tons on average (1994-2000). Since 2002 opium production has been much higher in every single year, and amounted to an average of some 5,300 metric tons. Poppy production varied across the country. Eighteen provinces in the north, and north-western region were reported to be poppy-free in 2008.[19] These provinces were fairly stable. Taliban were less likely to wander around freely. The seven provinces in the south and south-west region – Day Kundi, Farah, Hilmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Uruzgan and Zabul – were accounted for 98% of Afghanistan’s opium cultivation in 2008. It is expected that this region will still remain the most significant with cultivation in Afghanistan.[20] Taliban remain a powerful group in most parts of this region. A UN survey asked village headmen from poppy-growing villages to state the reason that predominantly drove the farmers to cultivate opium instead of other crops. This is what they avowed: “Higher sale price of poppy as compared to other crops” was the dominant reason (53%) for growing opium poppy (Figure 2). Although the opium price continues to decrease, it is still higher than other crops for some farmers. About one third of respondents also cited ‘poverty alleviation’ as the most dominant reason. Interestingly, 7% of the responses for growing opium poppy were the “lack of governmental control”. While it is among the lowest response, it is still significant as a reason.[21] See figure 2 for more details.

There is a third sector of unemployed young men who are recruited or hired by the Taliban or insurgent groups for implementing their cruel actions against the Afghan people, government, and the coalition forces.

Joining Insurgents

The Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) in Afghanistan believes that unemployment is the “mother” of all causes of the insurgency in the country.[22] There are several instances reported by the news media about young unemployed Afghan men joining the Taliban.

“Jobless and illiterate, Rahimullah began running with the Taliban militants terrorizing Afghanistan’s Saed Karam Valley 2 years ago. He grew up with no skill to make him employable. Rahimullah had approached an orphanage for a job as a cook but was rejected. That’s when he responded to militant recruiters seeking young men to take up arms against police, soldiers, and local officials in the Taliban’s devastating bombing campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within a year of joining its ranks, Rahimullah was killed in a shootout with paramilitary troops.” [23]

There is a strong correlation between large numbers of unemployed cohorts and political violence. When young people – particularly young men – are uprooted, jobless, intolerant, alienated, and have few opportunities for positive engagement, they represent a ready pool of recruits for groups seeking to mobilize violence such as the Taliban. Widespread youth unemployment carries effects beyond the individuals who can’t find jobs, even in cases as tragic as that of Rahimullah. The consequences can threaten a nation’s wider economy and stability. In another case IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office reports on Abdul Malik, age 17, joined Taliban insurgents in the south after two Taliban supporters gave him a mobile phone. A short while later his dead body was brought to his family. He was killed in a military operation near Musa Qala District Helmand Province.

Safiullah, a resident of Sangeen District in Helmand said.

“In our district many young guys join Taliban ranks for pocket money, a mobile phone or other financial incentives,”[24]

A jobless youth at a square in west of Kabul said to RAWA news:

“If I fail to find job I would have no choice except to join Taliban as I heard they (Taliban) pay more stipend than the government. Taliban pay 400 U.S. dollars while a government soldier receives some 200 U.S. dollars a month.”[25]

Yes, there is a Taliban leadership, but the recruits are not ideologically insurgents. They don’t follow the Taliban’s ideology, but working alongside the leadership to earn a loaf of bread. Even Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that roughly 70% of young Afghan men are involved with the Taliban because of the money. [26]General Karl Eikenberry, former commander of US forces, and current US ambassador in Afghanistan, said to Congress in 2007: “Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families.’’[27] You can’t have stability when you have nearly 40% of the work force unemployed. Add to this the Taliban’s willingness to pay $8 a day to those who will pick up a gun, and the renewed insurgency becomes less of a mystery. Taliban would hire jobless young men to place Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). IEDs are hidden behind signs and guardrails, under roadside debris, or inside animal carcasses, and encounters with these bombs are becoming more numerous and deadly in Afghanistan. IEDs have caused about 30% of all the American combat casualties in Afghanistan, both killed and wounded.[28] Figure 4 illustrates the increase in IED attacks in recent years.

On other hand figure 5 shows the relationship between suicide attacks and unemployment rate. As unemployment is increasing suicide attacks are rising too. There is a positive relationship between the two phenomenons.

These testimonies indicate a strong link between unemployment and rising instability, whether measured by casualties, IED incidents, or suicide bombings, whether fostered by insurgent groups or by organized criminal activity. High unemployment causes the violence in Afghanistan to rise.


Implications of high unemployment in Afghanistan are destructive for its economy and domestic security conditions. Lack of jobs in the country have led thousands of young Afghan men migrating to the neighboring countries, where they are abused, exploited, tortured and humiliated by their employers. Labor migration has possibly created a remittance dependent economy. However, those jobless teenagers who actually can’t meet the expense of escaping the unemployment remain in the country and relocate from one region to another where they can find jobs. This is the group of people who are endangering the security situation of Afghanistan. According to the interviews, surveys, and reports done by different news media, and international institutions, most of these young men start to either return back to their farmlands or join the Taliban extremist groups. There are those who are willing to farm agricultural crops, but due to food aid inflow that lowered the price of agricultural products, they are unable to compete in the market. The best alternative they have is farming opium poppy. Opium production is fueling the insurgents, and flaming the instability in the country. It is a lucrative crop compare to any other product that the farmers can grow. However, Taliban and other extremist groups smuggle opium to Pakistan across the border from Afghanistan and sell it at a higher price. This trade is the most beneficial and earns high revenue for the insurgents. The revenue is empowering the enemy of Afghanistan in fighting against the foreign and domestic troops.

However, unemployment also incentivizes youngsters in Afghanistan to join the Taliban or other groups in the country. Unemployment is a very useful recruiting tool for the Taliban to engage the Afghan youths in the fight against the government and its people. According to the newspaper reports and media outlets, uprooted, jobless, and uneducated young people in Afghanistan have few opportunities for positive engagement, they represent a ready pool of recruits for groups seeking to mobilize violence such as the Taliban. Youngsters are used as suicide attackers, battle forces, or laborers for implanting Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) on the side of the roads. Unemployment has a positive effect on the rise of violence in Afghanistan.

According to the Oxfam survey conducted in 14 provinces across Afghanistan seven in ten (70%) individuals saw poverty and unemployment as a major cause of conflict. See figure 8 for more details. This is what the Afghans said about the current conflict. [29]

We thank God that the fighting we saw during Taliban does not exist now, even though still they do suicide attacks. The main harm of the current conflict is poverty and unemployment. If there are employment opportunities for the people, there won’t be killings.” – Female, Kabul

“If the people are jobless, they are capable of anything.” – Male, Parwan [30]

This paper has come to a conclusion that these three implications of unemployment have greatly deteriorated the economy and stability of the country.  Unemployment has strengthened the adversaries of Afghanistan. A young man from Kandahar was quoted in Oxfam survey saying that:

“If people are employed, the fighting will end.” 28


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