Afghanistan: The Return of the Taliban & Heroin

Three student readings examine the growing instability of Afghanistan.

Americans are learning that the news about Afghanistan is not good. The Taliban are back. So are Al Qaeda and other jihadists. Poppy-fueled heroin smuggling is flourishing. And relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are worsening.

The three student readings below aim to offer insight into these developments and others that prevent Afghanistan from becoming more stable. Without that stability, as one knowledgeable analyst concludes, the country will continue to harbor terrorists and the global threat they pose.

Student Reading 1:


Afghanistan was founded in the mid-18th century. Slightly smaller than Texas, it is landlocked and has an estimated population of 31 million. Afghans fought against British control in the 19th century but did not gain full independence until 1919. Under King Zahir Shah (1933-1973) the country had its longest period of stability.

Since the 1970s Afghans have suffered almost continuous conflict. After a communist takeover in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded to support the coup and to fight a war with Muslim guerrilla fighters known as the Mujahideen (a term with both religious and military connotations). During the Carter and Reagan administrations, the U.S. supplied and funded the Mujahideen covertly against the Soviets. After the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989, U.S. interest in Afghanistan faded.

A civil war for control of Afghanistan followed in the 1990s. Regional warlords battled each other and violent lawlessness gripped the countryside. These conditions helped build public support for a militant Sunni group called the Taliban ("seekers of knowledge"), which advocated a strict version of Muslim religious law. The Taliban, backed by Pakistan, seized the Afghan capital Kabul in 1996. By 1998 they controlled most of the rest of the country. The Taliban provided Osama bin Laden a safe haven for the training of his Al Qaeda fighters. Under the Taliban, girls were not permitted to attend school nor women to hold jobs. Thieves had a hand or foot amputated. The Taliban also forced Afghan farmers to stop growing poppies, the source of opium and heroin and saleable at much higher prices than such traditional crops as wheat, cotton and rice.

These two decades of war killed more than a million Afghans and made refugees of some six million more. War destroyed much of this poor country's infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, irrigation systems—and left Afghanistan littered with land mines.

The U.S. invaded and occupied Afghanistan after 9/11. But Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and their Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaped. They retreated to the rugged mountainous areas of southeast Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.

Warlord leaders of Afghan's tribal ethnic groups, who had lost much of their power under the Taliban, regained it after the U.S. invasion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's war strategy included an emphasis on a small, mobile ground force. Needing additional troops, U.S. Special Forces and CIA officers "handed out $70 million in $100 bills" to regional warlord commanders" to get their support. (Pankaj Mishra, "The Real Afghanistan," The New York Review of Books, 3/10/05) But Northern Alliance warlords were not especially interested in pursuing either Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders.

Instead, President Bush turned his attention away from Afghanistan and to Iraq. He and other administration leaders repeatedly and inaccurately associated Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attacks and with having weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to the U.S. and the world. Critics of President Bush have charged him with negligence in not finishing the job in Afghanistan and misleading the country into an unnecessary "war of choice" against Iraq.

By 2004 Afghanistan had its first democratically-elected president, Hamid Karzai, and in 2005 National Assembly elections. But warlord leaders continue today to be major power sources. Tribal ethnic groups include Pashtuns, who make up 42 percent of the population, Tajiks 27 percent, Hazaras and Uzbeks 9 percent each, Turkmen 3 percent, and Balachs 2 percent.

Eighty percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims; most other people are Shia Muslims. They speak a number of different languages, but the official ones are Pashto and Persian (also known as Dari). An estimated 51 percent of Afghanistan's males are literate, but only 21 percent of the females can read and write.

Additional Sources:
"The World Factbook,"

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why did the U.S. attack Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks?

3. What is your understanding of why the U.S. failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar?

4. Bush administration officials say their belief that Saddam Hussein was associated with 9/11, that he had weapons of mass destruction, and that he represented a serious security threat were all due to inaccurate intelligence. Do you know of any other explanations? If not, how might you learn about them?

5. What is your understanding of why the U.S. turned most of its military attention away from Afghanistan to an invasion of Iraq?

Student Reading 2:

Afghanistan and Pakistan

Soon after their defeat by U.S.-led forces in 2001, Taliban leaders began recruiting new fighters in Pakistan's madrasas (Muslim religious schools)—the same place where the Taliban first got its start. In remote mountain tribal areas of Northern Pakistan, Afghan, Uzbek, and other Central Asian militants, as well as "what intelligence officials estimate to be 80 to 90 Arab terrorist operatives and fugitives," joined them. Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri" may have been among them. (Carlotta Gall and Ismail Khan, "Taliban and Allies Tighten Grip in Northern Pakistan, New York Times, 12/11/06)

The 9/11 attacks forced Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to make a choice between continued support for the Taliban or cooperation with the U.S. He chose the U.S. But his political position is delicate, as two assassination attempts on him suggest. One important reason for Pakistan's original support for the Taliban was its desire to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. (Pakistan and India have clashed over control over the Kashmir region and other issues.) Some top Pakistani army and intelligence officers continue to support the Taliban. According to Barnett Rubin ( "Saving Afghanistan,", January/February 2007), "circumstantial evidence" suggest that such aid to Taliban is headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan. The U.S. has pressured Musharraf to capture or kill Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, but Musharraf's own military and intelligence officials pressure him not to pursue them.

Musharraf's presidency depends upon his ability to satisfy both sides. His military has had only modest results in trying to control Pakistan's lawless frontier areas, where the Taliban and their supporters thrive. Pakistani troops have captured or killed hundreds of jihadists. But many others continue to be based in training camps along parts of a 500-mile western border with Afghanistan.

Inside Afghanistan, too, there is once again support for the Taliban. A senior American official said, "How much of this is support for the Taliban? How much is coerced? How much of it is gun for hire? How much of it is a young man who has nothing else to do and this sounds pretty exciting? Our analysis is that there's some degree of all of those." (David Rhode and James Risen, "C.I.A. Review Highlights of Afghan Leader's Woes," New York Times, 11/5/06)

In a September 2006 agreement with Pakistan's government, jihadists said they would stop helping the insurgency in Afghanistan. In exchange Pakistani troops agreed to stop their attacks. Officials say the militants are ignoring this agreement. President Karzai complains frequently, publicly and to no avail that Pakistan is the source of its Taliban problem. Musharraf insists that Pakistan is not the source. The U.S. does not press Musharraf, fearing that the result might well be a revolt that would overthrow him.

Today 40,000 NATO troops and special forces, including 20,000 American soldiers, are combating increasing numbers of Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other jihadists in Afghanistan. (, 10/4/06) These groups have adopted tactics used by Iraqi insurgents to deadly effect—such as suicide attacks and use of improvised explosive devices. Suicide attacks rose from 18 in the first 11 months of 2005 to 116 in the first 11 months of 2006. (Anthony Cordesman, "One War We Can Still Win," op-ed, New York Times, 12/13/06)

According to a United Nations report, the casualty rate in Afghanistan in 2006 was three or four times greater than it was in 2005. More than 2,000 people have been killed, about one-third of them civilians, the rest militants and NATO soldiers. A UN spokesman in Kabul said a third of the country is now unsafe for UN operations. ( New York Times , 10/3/06) Since the Taliban insurgency began several years ago, it has lost an estimated 7,000 fighters but has "an inexhaustible supply of foot soldiers." (Josh Meyer, "Pentagon Resists Pleas for Help in Afghan Opium Fight,", 12/5/06)

"Fighting traditionally dies down in winter because of the inhospitable conditions in the mountains." But it is a "breeding season" for recruiting more fighters and for training. "'I expect next year to be quite bloody,' the United States ambassador in Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said in an interview last week... 'I don't expect the Taliban to win but everyone needs to understand that we are in for a fight.'" (Gall and Khan)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why did Pakistan support the Taliban in the 1990s?

3. What problems does Pakistani President Musharraf face in dealing with the United States, Afghanistan and his own military?

4. Why doesn't the U.S. insist that Musharraf eliminate all safe havens for Taliban in Pakistan?

Student Reading 3:

The drug trade, the Taliban and other problems

Soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Afghan farmers resumed poppy cultivation. One of every eight Afghans is now involved in this work. Opium, the dried gum taken from poppy seeds, is the main ingredient in heroin. Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world's opium, which means that it produces 11 times more than all other countries combined.

In such forms as gooey paste packaged in bricks, crystal (a sugar-like substance made from heroin) and pure heroin, smugglers ship their product via Iran and Pakistan into Europe, Asia and, more and more, the United States. The poppy crop represents 33 percent of the Afghan economy, earns $2.3 billion in profits and finances the Taliban insurgency. (Josh Meyer, "Pentagon Resists Pleas for Help in Afghan Opium Fight,", 12/5/06)
A reporter asked Manan Farahi, the director of Afghanistan's counterterrorism efforts, why the Taliban were so strong in Helmand, a southern province. "He said that Halmandis had, in fact, hated the Taliban because of Mullah Omar's ban on poppy cultivation. 'The elders were happy this government [Karzai's] was coming and they could plant again. But then the warlords came back and let their militias roam freely.

"They were settling old scores—killing people, stealing their opium. And because they belonged to the government, the people couldn't look to the government for protection. And because they [the government] had the ear of the Americans, the people couldn't look to the Americans. Into this need stepped the Taliban. And this time the Taliban, far from suppressing the drug trade, agreed to protect it." (Elizabeth Rubin, "In the Land of the Taliban," New York Times, 10/22/06)

According to David Kilcullen, a State Department strategist, the Taliban "are essentially armed propaganda organizations." They aim to convince the Afghans that they are unstoppable and "switch between guerrilla activity and terrorist activity as they need to." One example of this strategy is the Taliban's use of "night letters." "They have been pushing grow poppy instead of regular crops, and using night-time threats and intimidation to punish those who don't and convince others to convert to poppy."

The Taliban, says Kilcullen, is trying "to weaken the hold of central and provincial government... [and] are specifically trying to send the message: 'The government can neither help you nor hurt us. We can hurt you, or protect you—the choice is yours.' They [are] making an example of people who don't cooperate—for example, dozens of provincial-level officials have been assassinated this year... "

Kilcullen thinks that "winning minds and hearts is not a matter of making local people like you" as some American authorities seem to believe. Instead, it's about getting local people to "accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion." "(Quoted in George Packer, "Knowing the Enemy," The New Yorker, 12/18/06)

The U.S. Congress has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to stop the heroin trade. And yet, writes Elizabeth Rubin, "a United Nations report in September estimated that this year's [poppy] crop was breaking all records—6,100 metric tons compared with 4,100 last year. When I visited Helmand, schools...were closed in part because teachers and students were busy harvesting the crop... It requires a lot of workers, and you can earn $12 a day compared with the $2 you get for wheat." Smugglers bribe government officials and guards to smuggle opium and heroin out of the country. An Afghan like Razzaq "can earn $1,500 to $7,500 a month. Most Afghans can't make that in a year. Besides, he said, 'all the governors are doing this, so why shouldn't we.'"

Military officials resist providing the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) with more than token help to stop the smuggling even though the agency and congress members plead for it. DEA agents say they need helicopters to move through mountainous terrain and to back up troop support. "Military officials say they can spare no resources from the task of fighting the Taliban and its allies." Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, the drug trade is "a law enforcement problem, not a military one." (Meyer)

But a report by the Pentagon and the State Department found that "the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work" and that "managers cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone." Poor training by private U.S. contractors is partly to blame. The result "has contributed to the explosion in opium production, government corruption and the resurgence of the Taliban." (James Glanz and David Rohde, "U.S. Report Finds Dismal Training of Afghan Police," New York Times, 12/4/06)

As for the courts, "In the halls of justice here [Kabul], almost everything is for sale. It can take one bribe to obtain a blank legal form and another to have a clerk stamp it. Lawyers openly haggle in corridors and the parking lots over the size of payoffs. A new refrigerator delivered to the right official might solve a long-running property dispute... Nostalgia for the ruthless rule of the Taliban is growing as the line between judges and criminals blurs." (Paul Watson, "In Afghanistan, Money Tips the Scales of Justice,", 12/18/06)

A dysfunctional, corrupt police force and justice system are only part of the problem. There's also the U.S.'s failure to deliver on promises to farmers for alternatives to growing poppies; high unemployment; power shortages (people in Kabul today have less electricity than they did before 9/11); poor roads; the absence of equipment for the Afghan army; and widespread corruption among officials.

"Particularly in dirt-poor rural areas, many Afghans believe their daily lot has improved little since Taliban times and tend to cast the blame on the same Americans they once hailed as liberators." Lack of security and poor living conditions are the main complaints. (Meyer)

Barnett Rubin, a United Nations advisor on Afghanistan, concluded that the United States "has failed to transform the region where the global terrorist threat began and where the global terrorist threat persists. If the United States wants to succeed in the war on terrorism, it must focus its resources and its attention on securing the stability of Afghanistan."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Since the Taliban eradicated most poppy cultivation when they were in power, why are they now encouraging, even demanding, it now?

3. According to David Kilkullen, what is the Taliban strategy?

4. Why has eliminating Afghanistan's drug trade been so unsuccessful?

5. What other problems does the Karzai government have?

6. What difference would a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan make to the U.S.?

For inquiry

Assign independent or small-group investigations on such subjects as the following. Have students frame carefully worded questions that their inquiry will answer.

1. Covert U.S. support for the Mujahideen

2. The U.S. failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden

3. Bush administration public statements about the Iraq threat, 2002-2003

4. Madrasas

5. The origins of Al Qaeda; the Taliban

6. Alternatives to growing poppies for Afghan farmers

7. Training for the Afghan police

8. The Kashmir issue

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: