LATimes | Abdul Wahid, one of 10 children of an electrician, had little education beyond a few years in an Islamic religious school. There, his lessons consisted of memorizing every verse of the Koran.
When he finished school, he had no prospects for a steady job in rural Wardak province. He tried to make a living as a long-distance driver for hire, using a borrowed car. He often had to wait a month between customers.
At 18, he found employment of another kind.
"My life got better," he said, "when I joined the Taliban."
He and his fellow militants ambushed foreign supply trucks or military vehicles, then divvied up the food, blankets and other spoils.
"All of the work I was doing made my heart happy," said Wahid, 26, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor of Pul-e-Charkhi Prison on the outskirts of Kabul, the capital. "I don't know how to use tools. I'm not very skilled. So for us, whatever we reaped from attacks, we would keep. It was enough for us to live on."
In many developing countries, runaway population growth has created vast ranks of restless young men like Wahid, with few prospects and little to lose.
Their frustrated ambitions can be an explosive force, as shown by the youth-driven uprisings that toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 2011.
About 80% of the world's civil conflicts since the 1970s have occurred in countries with young, fast-growing populations, known as youth bulges, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Population Action International.
Afghanistan is a stark example. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the population has swelled from 23 million to 33 million. Nearly three-fourths of Afghans are under 30. The median age is 16.6, compared with 37 in the United States.
In a sluggish agrarian economy, few young men can find legitimate employment. Their lack of a steady income essentially closes the door to marriage in a society where sex outside of wedlock is forbidden. Tradition requires paying a dowry and staging a wedding celebration, which together cost as much as $5,000 — three times the average annual household income.
A young man can earn far more working for the Taliban than for the Afghan army or the police, according to Western intelligence reports and researchers. Planting a roadside bomb can pay 20 times more than a day's manual labor.
Similar youth bulges have emerged in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and the Palestinian territories — part of what security experts call an "arc of instability" reaching across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Of the 2 billion or more people who will be added to the planet by 2050, 97% are expected to be born in Africa, Asia and Latin America, led by the poorest, most volatile countries.
"We are literally going to see 1 billion young people come into the populations in the arc of instability over the next two decades," said Jack Goldstone, an expert on demography and revolutions at George Mason University in Virginia. "We can't fight them. We have to figure a better way to help them."