Afghanistan is in the news these days as the Taliban, ousted from power following the US-led invasion in 2001, has returned to power after a surprisingly short-lived, but strikingly successful, military campaign against the incumbent government. Afghanistan’s future is highly uncertain as the memory of the Taliban’s brutal regime of religious dictatorship between 1996 and 2001 comes back to haunt the international community. There are widely shared fears that the reincarnated Taliban might simply be a recreation of its murderous past driven by religious zealotry.

It is difficult to believe today, but Afghanistan had a relatively prosperous and peaceful past. Some estimates of long-run per capita real GDP suggest that per capita real GDP in 2020 was apparently lower than in 1950 (see Figure 1 below).

Source: www.wid.world

Others have compiled a photo montage of Afghanistan of the ‘60s conjuring an era of a modern-looking country. As Alan Taylor, writing in the Atlantic, notes wistfully:

In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain respect for more conservative factions. Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time, and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization taken in the 50s and 60s. 

Picture taken in 1962 at the Faculty of Medicine in Kabul of two Afghan medicine students listening to their professor (at right) as they examine a plaster cast showing a part of a human body.  (Source: The Atlantic, July 2, 2013)
A panoramic view showing the old and new buildings in Kabul, in August of 1969. The Kabul River flows through the city, centre right. In the background on the hilltop is the mausoleum of late King Mohammad Nadir Shah. (Source: The Atlantic, July 2, 2013)

Contrast the seemingly idyllic pictures shown above with the one below as the Taliban insurgents occupy the Presidential palace in the wake of their triumphant return to Kabul. It is a bleak picture of armed men projecting their invincibility to the rest of the world.

Taliban insurgents in the Presidential Palace, Kabul, 16 August 2021 (source: npr.org)

As one ponders the future of this conflict-ridden country which apparently had a peaceful and reasonably prosperous past, how should one respond to the claims of the US and its allies that Afghanistan in the post-2001 era went through a major phase of progress that is now likely to be reversed? Was there significant progress?  

The per capita GDP numbers for the 1950 to 2020 period cited above (Figure 1) do not support that claim.  This is complemented by Figure 2 which shows that growth during the non-Taliban period has been rather volatile, with seven episodes of per capita recessions between 2003 and 2020 (see Figure 2 below).

Source: Derived from World Bank

A broader measure of well-being – the  UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) – suggests some positive changes between 2000 and 2010, but tapering off afterward. Afghanistan has languished in the low human development category (HDI) for decades. Between 2014 and 2019, its international ranking (in terms of HDI) has slipped five places. Today, it is ranked 165th out of 189 countries.

Source: Derived from UNDP

Afghanistan also has a dismal record on poverty reduction during the era of the US and NATO-supported government (see Figure 4 below). The incidence of poverty (based on a national poverty line) went up sharply between 2007 and 2016. There has been a decline since then, but poverty in 2020 is still significantly higher than it was in 2007.

Source: Derived from World Bank and ADB

In sum, while the future for Afghanistan under a Taliban regime is highly uncertain, the record during the post-US invasion era of nearly 20 years does not enable one to claim that it was a period of sustained prosperity. Yet, the US spent approximately US$2.3 trillion in Afghanistan over 20 years. There is little to show for such a huge ‘fiscal stimulus’ given that the vast bulk of the trillions of dollars was spent on military and security outlays (Table 1). On the other hand, the human cost in terms of lost lives and livelihoods has been immense (Table 2).  Sadly, Afghanistan today is worse off than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Table 1

Source: Watson Institute, Brown University

Table 2

Source: Watson Institute, Brown University


Iyanatul Islam is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and former Branch Chief, International Labour Office, Geneva. The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and should not be attributed to the ILO.