Afghanistan is a country with violence at Palaeolithic levels, a misogynist religion, and endemic corruption. It is surrounded by countries that are hostile to it and the West. In fact, it seems to be made up of territory that is unwanted by the countries that surround it, as if the value from incorporating bits of Afghanistan would not be worth the pain of having the Afghani people who would come with it. It does not produce anything that the world wants in a positive way. Its major export is heroin, bringing misery and death to a large arc from Russia to Western Europe.
It sounds like a hopeless case of a country in which to do nation-building, but that is not the worst of it. The modern history of Afghanistan is written in its wheat statistics. Back in 1960, there were nine million Afghans and they grew 2.3 million tonnes of wheat in that year. By the time the Russians invaded in 1979, wheat production had risen to 2.7 million tonnes with a further 200,000 tonnes being imported. There were then 13.7 million Afghans. Things did not go well in the latter half of the Russian period of occupation with wheat production falling to 1.8 million tonnes in 1989, the year they withdrew. Nevertheless, population growth rate did not fall below 2% per annum while the Russians were in charge, with the population growing to 16.9 million in the year they left.
Population growth increased to 2.6% per annum under the Taliban. By the time the United States’ turn at running the country began in 2001, the number of Afghanis in existence had increased to 22.8 million. Thirteen years further along, there are now 32 million Afghanis, an increase of just over nine million. How many Afghanis have died in the conflict since the United States-led coalition entered the country? It may be as high as fifteen thousand, with two thirds of those having been killed by the Taliban. The ratio of creation of new Afghans by birth to deaths of Afghans in the ongoing conflict is over 600 to 1. What is the carrying capacity of the country? Under ideal conditions, aided by the warmest climate for 800 years, it is perhaps 13 million people. What keeps the excess above that figure alive is imported grain which for the last few years has settled down to a rate of about two million tonnes per annum.
Afghanistan’s population growth rate is now 2.4% per annum. At that rate it is doubling every 29 years. By 2030 there will be 46.6 million Afghans. To keep body and soul together, the increased population from the 2014 level will require a further 5 million tonnes per annum of imported wheat. Can anyone think of where the money might come from to pay for that wheat, if the wheat can be found at that time in the first place? I believe that the American public will soon tire of paying for the ungrateful and irredeemable wretches, no matter what is agreed to in the disengagement process.
What is the most likely scenario? Soon after the U.S. withdrawal, the corrupt Afghani officials in Kabul will increase their rate of theft with the consequence that wheat imports fall below what is required to keep the population quiescent. Rioting and social breakdown follow. The starving urban populations spread out into the countryside, devouring what they can, including the seed grain for the next crop. Population falls to a fraction of the country’s carrying capacity after the death of some 30 million Afghanis. There is no force on Earth that can stop something like this from happening. There is no limitless supply of money and no limitless supply of grain that can overcome a population doubling period of 29 years. Over the last thirteen years, the noblest country on the planet tried to help one of the most wretched. That quixotic undertaking was inherently doomed. It is pointless to attempt nation-building if a country is going to starve to death anyway.
David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).