AL QAEDA AND THE TALIBAN: What Threat to the U.S.?

August 4, 2010

President Obama continues to maintain that Al Qaeda and the Taliban"threaten America and its allies." Is he right? Three student readings present some of the basic background information on Al Qaeda and the Taliban and on differing views of counterinsurgency.

To the Teacher:

As President Obama's Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban appears to falter, public criticism of it increases. But the president continues to maintain publicly and repeatedly that they "threaten America and its allies." Is he right? The three student readings below present some of the basic background information on Al Qaeda and the Taliban and on differing views of counterinsurgency.

These limited discussions call for further student inquiry on such subjects as those following each reading.

For earlier materials on issues raised in the readings, see in the high school section of TeachableMoment "Thinking Critically About Obama's Speech on Afghanistan/Pakistan Strategy," "Afghanistan: A "War of Necessity"? "The Return of the Taliban and Heroin," "Why Do Terrorists Want to Kill Americans?"

See the same section for "Thinking Is Questioning," which includes suggestions for helping students learn to ask good questions. For an approach to an inquiry project, see especially Reading 2 in "The CIA: An Inquiry" and/or "The Plagiarism Perplex" in the "Ideas & Essays section of TeachableMoment.

Introduction: A July 2, 2010 interview

Michael Isikoff, Newsweek reporter: Let's get a sense of what the overall threat picture looks like right now. [White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel said [recently] that about half of Al Qaeda has been eliminated in the last 18 months. How many people is that, and how many people are left in the other half?

Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center: I think [CIA director] Leon Panetta said on Sunday, and I agree with him, that in Afghanistan, you have a certain number, a relatively small number, 50 to 100. I think we have in Pakistan a larger number.

Isikoff: How many?

Leiter: Upwards—more than 300, I would say. And I think the key has been not going after every foot soldier—although that can be very important. ... but more critically ... trying to decimate Al Qaeda's leadership ranks. I think we've had a lot of success there. Clearly, the death of Al Qaeda's No. 3, not long ago, Sheik Saeed [al-Masri] is meaningful. But I readily admit this is not going to be a war won by body counts. Body counts and taking out leadership is a part of it but there are many, many other elements of this, ranging from effective aviation screening to ... trying to counter the ideology that is spawning this. (

For discussion

What questions do students have about this introduction? How might they be answered?

Student Reading 1:

Al Qaeda and Taliban threats

The Al Qaeda enemy

"Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda," President George W. Bush declared a few days after 9/11 in an address before a joint session of Congress, "but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." (9/20/01)

President Barack Obama does not use the phrase, "war on terror," does not discuss defeating "every terrorist group of global reach," and usually refers to "extremists," rather than "terrorists." But for him Al Qaeda is the primary enemy, as it was for Bush.

Announcing his Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy at West Point, Obama declared: I have determined it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months our troops will begin to come home...Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future." (12/1/09)

In 2002, the US had about 5,000 troops in Afghanistan. By the time Obama tool office in 2009, that number had risen to about 32,000. Currently (August 2010) there are said to be 94,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, at a cost of nearly $100 billion. This does not include more than 100,000 civilian contractors, workers, and security people or 40,000 troops allied NATO forces.

There are no US troops or civilian contractors in Pakistan, only small numbers of US special operations forces, some training Pakistani soldiers. US drone attacks in Pakistan aim to strike Al Qaeda fighters. Inside their country, Pakistan's forces have fought Pakistani Taliban, but Al Qaeda's 300 or so fighters have a safe haven in the country.

Al Qaeda now appears to be a decentralized network that inspires individuals in loosely affiliated groups in widely separated places—Yemen, Somalia, Indonesia, the Philippines, even the US But there is no evidence that they are being directed by Osama bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders.

The principal stated aims of al-Qaeda are to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia; destroy Israel; and topple pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East. Bin Laden has also said that he wishes to unite, by force if necessary, all Muslims into a single Islamic nation.

The Taliban enemy

The Taliban ("religious students") and its allies are the enemy in the NATO war in Afghanistan, which is led by the US Most Taliban members are Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. During the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), they were among the mujahideen ("holy warriors") who received money, arms, and intelligence from the US They were key players in forcing the Soviets from the country.

In that ten-year conflict, more than a million Afghans were killed, and tens of thousands of others maimed. According to the Soviets, 14,453 of their 118,000 troops sent to Afghanistan died and 11,600 were wounded. Five million Afghans fled the country.

A five-year civil war among mujahideen groups war followed the departure of Soviet troops. The Taliban won power in 1996. With them came sharia, (the "way" or "path") and a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and refused to turn him and other leaders over to the United States after the 9/11 attacks. A swift US invasion followed that drove the Taliban from power.

Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders escaped into the mountainous region of bordering Pakistan, where the government of that country has little or no control. The Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction threatening the US

Meanwhile, from their safe havens in Pakistan, the Taliban and allied groups rebuilt their forces. To this day, the former Taliban head of government, Mullah Omar, operates out of Quetta, Pakistan. Over the years, the war in Afghanistan simmered at a low level, but never died out completely. Then, more recently, it gradually became more violent. Taliban fighters won partial or complete control in the east and south of the country. Obama warned that "if the Taliban retakes this country and al Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake." (3/1/10)

Taliban power comes from linked groups whose goal is to regain control of Afghanistan. Its connections with a weakened Al Qaeda, "50 to 100" of whose fighters may be in Afghanistan and a few hundred in Pakistan, is cloudy.

For discussion

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

For inquiry

What questions do you think you would need to ask and answer in inquiring into the following subjects?

1. The Al Qaeda threat to the United States
2. President Obama's "overarching goal" in Afghanistan and Pakistan
3. The president's announcement that he would begin withdrawing troops next summer
4. The safe haven in Pakistan for Al Qaeda and the Taliban
5. US drone attacks in Pakistan
6. The ability of Al Qaeda to "operate with impunity" in Afghanistan "if the Taliban retakes this country"
7. The relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda
8. Ethnic group relations in Afghanistan
9. Sharia
10. Pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East

Student Reading 2:


General David Petraeus, recently appointed by Obama to be NATO's top field commander in Afghanistan, describes in his manual, "Counterinsurgency," a strategy for defeating extremist groups: "clear-hold-build." In brief, 1) clear a specific area by killing and/or driving insurgents from it; 2) hold the area with a military force sufficient to prevent the enemy from returning; 3) build small-scale social service projects—wells, roads, medical clinics—to gain popular support. The general emphasizes, "REMEMBER SMALL CAN BE BEAUTIFUL."

But clearing Taliban fighters from an area like Marja, Afghanistan, where they have roots, is easier said than done—and was not done under the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus' predecessor.

Other views of counterinsurgency

Nicholas Lehmann asks in a survey of recent books on counterinsurgency, "What is
terrorism, anyway? The expert consensus converges on a few key traits. Terrorists have political or ideological objectives...They are 'non-state actors,' not part of conventional governments. Their intention is to intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims, in the hope of generating widespread panic and, often, a response from the enemy so brutal that it ends up backfiring by creating sympathy for the terrorists' cause. Their targets are often ordinary civilians, and, even when terrorists are trying to kill soldiers, their attacks often don't take place on the field of battle."

Lehmann quotes Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and author of Dying to Win: That Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, a study of 315 suicide attacks, 1980-2003: "What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland."

Whether Pape's conclusion fits in all cases, it appears to be accurate for the Afghan Taliban. They are mostly Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and have announced that they will not participate in any negotiations with President Hamid Karzai's government so long as American troops remain in Afghanistan. For them, the Americans are terrorists who occupy their country.

Problems in reconciling with the Taliban

Karzai is seeking to reconcile with some Taliban and allied groups. His efforts are acceptable to the Obama administration so long as they are confined to lower-level fighters willing to give up violence, accept the Afghan constitution, and cut ties, if any, to Al Qaeda. But Karzai also wants to reach out to higher-level insurgents, like those in a network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Haqqani's operation "is suspected of running much of the insurgency around Kabul, the Afghan capital, and across eastern Afghanistan, carrying out car bombings and kidnappings...It is allied with Al Qaeda," as well as with the Taliban, reports the New York Times.

The situation is complicated. General Petraeus and Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, want to blacklist the Haqqani network as terrorists. But through its Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan, a US partner in the war effort, is interested in an alliance with Haqqani as "a way to exercise its own leverage in Afghanistan." Pakistan wants to prevent rival India's threat to its influence in Afghanistan. ("Petraeus Presses for Insurgent Group's Leaders to Be Placed on Terrorist List," New York Times, 7/14/10)

Preventing future Al Qaeda attacks

Pape argues that "offensive military action rarely works" against terrorism. This, he says, applies to Al Qaeda, whose real goal is to force the US military from Muslim countries. "American military policy in the Persian Gulf was most likely the pivotal factor leading to September 11th." At the time, American military policy included US military bases in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's birthplace and homeland.

For Pape, "the only effective way to prevent future Al Qaeda attacks would be for the United States to take all its forces out of the Middle East." ("Terrorism Studies," The New Yorker, 4/26/10)

For discussion

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

For inquiry

What questions do you think you would need to ask and answer in inquiring into the following subjects?

1. The counterinsurgency strategy of "clear-build-hold"
2. The Marja strategy results
3. The nature of "terrorism"
4. "Terrorism" and the occupation of a country by foreign troops
5. Pashtun society
6. The Haqqani network
7. The Pakistan-India rivalry
8. US forces in the Middle East

Student Reading 3:

To Leave or Not To Leave

Lehmann's conclusion after completing his studies:

"For Americans, the gravest terrorist threat right now is halfway across the world in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan," for these countries "all have pro-American governments that are weak. They don't have firm control over the area within their borders, and they lack the sort of legitimacy that would make terrorism untempting. Now that General Petraeus...has authority over American troops in the region, our forces could practice all that he has preached, achieve positive results, and still be unable to leave because there is no national authority that can be effective against terrorism..."

Robert Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relation, generally regarded as the most influential foreign policy think tank, writes, "It makes no sense to maintain 100,000 troops to go after so small an adversary, especially when Al Qaeda operates on this scale in a number of countries. Such situations call for more modest and focused policies of counterterrorism along the lines of those being applied in Yemen and Somalia, rather than a full-fledged counterinsurgency effort...The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding...The time has come to scale back US objectives and sharply reduce US involvement on the ground. ("We're Not Winning. It's Not Worth It," Newsweek, 7/26/10)

In a follow-up interview with the New York Times, Haas made it clear that he did not support a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. "I'm talking about reducing combat troops and operations and costs and casualties by more than half," leaving behind some special forces and Afghan army trainers. (7/22/10)

Tom Engelhardt, author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's and editor of, thinks any kind of counterinsurgency "makes little sense." The US Vietnam and the French Algeria disasters, he writes, should have taught that lesson, but the Petraeus 472-page manual demonstrates that they haven't...

"Looked at historically, counterinsurgency was largely the war-fighting option of empires, of powers that wanted to keep occupying their restive colonies forever and a day. Of course, past empires didn't spend much time worrying about 'protecting the people.' They knew such wars were brutal. That was their point. As George Orwell summed such campaigns up in 1946 in his essay 'Politics and the English Language': 'Defenseless villagers are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set afire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.'

"The rise of anti-colonialism and nationalism after World War II should have made counterinsurgency history. Certainly, there is no place for occupations and the wars that go with them in the twenty-first century.

"Unfortunately, none of this has been obvious to Washington or our leading generals...Let me offer my one-line rewrite of their 472 pages. It's simple and guaranteed to save trees as well as lives: 'When it comes to counterinsurgency, don't do it.'" (, 7/20/10)

For discussion

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

For inquiry

What questions do you think you would need to ask and answer in inquiring into the following subjects?

1. The weakness of the Afghan government
2. The weakness of the Pakistani government
3. The weakness of the Iraqi government
4. US efforts to train Afghan military forces and police
5. An example of the rise of anti-colonialism and nationalism after World War II
6. US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen or in Somalia
7. "The US Vietnam and French Algeria disasters"
8. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan

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