Between the Taliban and a Hard Place: The Struggle of Afghanistan’s Youth

In Shar-e-Naw, Kabul, young men have gathered to pray. Their slow chants echo through the small building, converted into a makeshift youth hostel, as Hameed leads them in their prayers. The room is small and hot but the mood is hopeful as Hameed speaks of a bright future for Afghanistan. Once the prayers are finished and a one hour lesson has been completed the young men head out onto the dusty street, some boisterous and some somber. None of them pay any attention to the Afghan National Police outside who carry AK-47’s and watch for trouble. They are used to this.

Hameed is a 39 year old Afghan who has lived and worked in Kabul, the capital, for most of his life. He now mentors the young men of this city and considers himself a teacher. “They’re lucky to be here,” he says of his pupils, “but most young Afghans aren’t so lucky.  Too many have no job, no education, no future. They don’t have enough to lose, so war doesn’t seem like a bad option.” The boys Hameed teaches are exceptions to a rule which sees many fall victim to the attractions of the Taliban or to the abject poverty and unemployment which is so common throughout Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the war, and even before, young male Afghans have found themselves in a precarious situation, frequently having to choose between poverty and war, often having both forced upon them.

The attraction to the Taliban is based on a number of factors and chief among them, says Hameed, is desperation. Religious fundamentalism plays a part in some cases, as does the mystique and honor attached to those who lay down their lives in this fight, but by far the biggest factor is an empty stomach or the lack of a job. In Kabul the rate of unemployment sits at around 35% while in the country provinces – and particularly in the Pashtun south – the rate can be as high as 70%. This has precipitated not only a shift from country to city, but it has forced young Afghans to seriously assess their options.

Sahael, a 17-year-old from Kandahar and one of Hameed’s students, is a perfect example. When asked about it, he is surprisingly up front about his time with the Taliban. He now works as a taxi driver in Kabul but in 2007 he lived with his family in a village in Kandahar province, just after the resurgence of the Taliban in the south. He told me, “The Taliban would come through and live in the village, sometimes for a short time and sometimes for a week or more. One day they told me and my friend that we could work for them. They gave us cell phones and we had to call when we saw anyone else come through the village. We also had to take things to them like guns and radios.”

When asked why he worked for the Taliban, Sahael says it is because he had never had a job and needed the money. The Taliban could afford to pay him a wage and he had notoriety in his village. His family moved to Kabul in 2008 because of the danger they faced and the fact that his father did not approve of him working for the Taliban. Sahael says he is considering moving away but is unsure where to move. “There is no future for me in Afghanistan,” he explained.

The flight of youth to other countries is one of the biggest hurdles faced by the likes of Hameed and the country as a whole. Young people with promise seldom see their futures lying in Afghanistan, instead preferring to move to neighboring Pakistan, the wealthy gulf nations, or to Europe and Britain. This robs Afghanistan of much potential, and further contributes to the degradation of the economy.  Those left have few options in life and all too often are persuaded by the attractions of the Taliban.

President Hamid Karzai, who has a three year old son, has spoken frequently of his fear that Afghanistan is losing its best and brightest. After a bombing in Ghazni province last year which killed a local governor and five others, the President made an impassioned speech to his country from a school near the Presidential palace. He visibly wept as he delivered the nationally televised speech, saying; “I do not want Mirwais, my son, to be a foreigner, I do not want this, I want Mirwais to be an Afghan. I want him to go to school here. I swear to God I’m worried, oh people, I’m worried. God forbid Mirwais should be forced to leave Afghanistan.”

Yet the corruption scandals surrounding the Karzai government itself have only made matters worse. In a series of allegations and investigations last year, the extent of corruption and cronyism in the Karzai government became apparent. And as the government’s credibility is damaged, its crucial ability to reach the youth is also diminished. Where the Taliban’s call to arms should be countered by the country’s leaders, there is only silence. The government gives the appearance of deserting a sinking ship and salvaging all that can be put into personal bank accounts, meanwhile the youth become more desperate.

This desperation kicks in during the early teenage years as naivety gives way to realization. Younger kids tend to be more positive about their prospects in Afghanistan but this fades with age. Ali, 12-years-old and originally from Herat- is optimistic about his future and will stay here in Afghanistan, he says. He attends the Afghanistan-e-Naween School, and speaks of his hopes for the future as he cheerfully walks to school. His uniform says ‘Allah Increase My Knowledge’ and he speaks English perfectly – he needs to as he intends to take over the family business trading foreign currency. “I like it here in Afghanistan. It is the greatest country,” he said.  However, he does express a wish that the war should end and says that he often sees evidence of the frequent attacks on Kabul.

Ali is not alone in struggling with the violence that frequently impacts the lives of so many Afghans. A lack of physical security, so keenly felt by all, is central to the dilemma faced by young people in this country. This, along with a lack of employment prospects, has driven them into the arms of the Taliban or across the borders in search of a better life. This is a problem caused by both the Taliban and foreign troops.

Combat operations carried out by both private western security companies and the U.S led security forces have been blamed for the rise in recruitment into the Taliban, particularly in the Pashtun south. The most dangerous result of civilian deaths is the anger it breeds in the young people who witness it. A significant number of Taliban recruits will join because they have lost loved ones and seek retribution. Another powerful attraction to the Taliban often has little to do with religious views and everything to do with an empty stomach and a lack of employment.

The news is not all bad however. There has been some advancement of the plight of Afghanistan’s youth since the 2001 invasion and Hameed says he has seen a rise in the quality of education provided by local schools. He points to the work done at the Afghanistan-e-Naween primary school in Shar-e-Naw as a good example of what can be achieved. According to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report published in 2009, Afghanistan’s youth now have a “better quality of life and improved access to livelihood opportunities, through increased awareness, education and skills development.

One area which has seen a marked improvement since 2001 has been the education of young girls. Under Taliban rule the education of girls was extremely rare and was banned for girls above the age of eight. Now the cities have seen a progression of female education and some country provinces have also embraced the practice. Still, girls and boys receive a disparate amount of education which reflects in the literacy rates of boys and girls being 50% and 18% respectively. Officials in Afghanistan have indicated that the gap between boys and girls is being addressed, but both young men and women continue to face enormous obstacles in their education and future.

In the meantime, both Hameed and Sahael struggle with the uncertainty their country faces, unwilling to consider the prospect of Taliban rule but equally unhappy with the foreign presence in their country. When asked if he prefers the Taliban or western forces Sahael says with conviction that he hates both: “they just make our lives hard.”

Sam Weir is a freelance journalist currently in Afghanistan. To contact him email