Life in Afghanistan: War, Insecurity, Poverty & Corruption

Student readings examine the lack of security for civilians; the lives of girls and women and the U.S. outreach to them; and corruption in Afghanistan's government. Discussion questions and suggestions for further student inquiry and citizenship activity follow.

By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher:
The war is in its tenth year, but Afghanistan seems to be a country Americans don't want to hear or think about — or so it seems given the absence of discussion about Afghanistan during the 2010 election campaign.
The main purpose of the student readings below is to shed light on the grave difficulties of Afghan life. An introduction lists some significant facts about a very poor country. The first reading considers civilian insecurity and deaths; the second provides a view of the lives of girls and women and the nature of U.S. outreach to them; the third details corruption in the Afghanistan government; the fourth provides some closing words about US progress in Afghanistan. Discussion questions and suggestions for further student inquiry and citizenship activity follow.
See also "Al Qaeda & the Taliban: What Threat to the US?" in the high school section of TeachableMoment and "Veiled Rebellion," a striking photo essay on Afghan women in the December 2010 issue of National Geographic.

Facts about Afghanistan

  • 76% of Afghanistan's nearly 30 million people live in rural areas.
  • 78.6% are farmers.
  • Products are opium, wheat, fruits, nuts, wool, mutton, sheepskins, lambskins.
  • Life expectancy is 44.65 years.
  • Ethnic groups include Pashtun (the largest), Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmen. Within each ethnic group are tribes. Loyalty usually goes to tribe and ethnic group before country.
  • Literacy rate for males is 43%, and 13% for females(2000 estimate).
  • 35% of Afghans do not have a job.
  • 36% live below the poverty line.
  • The country has 12,350 km. of paved roads and 29,800 km. of unpaved roads (2006).
  • Except for plains in the north and southwest, rugged mountains make up much of Afghanistan's terrain. 
  • Environmental problems include limited natural fresh water resources; inadequate supplies of potable water; soil degradation; overgrazing; deforestation (much of the remaining forests are being cut down for fuel and building materials); desertification; air and water pollution
("The World Factbook,"
Short lives, illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, a host of environmental issues, and a lack of national unity are not the only problems. The worst problem facing Afghanistan has been about 25 years of wars — first with the Soviet Union (1980-1989), then a civil war (1989-1995), and repressive Taliban rule (1996-2001) — followed by the US and NATO invasion (2001-).
Countless Afghans have died in these wars and many more have been maimed. Many have lost their homes and land. Powerful foreigners, most of whom know little or nothing about Afghan society and culture, have occupied their towns and villages for years. 
For discussion
What questions do students have about the introduction? How might they answer them?

Student Reading 1:

Security for the civilian population

"The cornerstone of any COIN [counterinsurgency] effort is establishing security for the civilian populace." —General David Petraeus
Afghan children
"Childhood education is a rare area of genuine improvement," writes Nick Turse in TomDispatch. "Afghan government statistics show steady growth — from 3,083,434 children in primary school in 2002 to 4,788,366 enrolled in 2008. Still, there are more young children outside than in the classroom, according to 2010 UNICEF numbers, which indicate that approximately five million Afghan children do not attend school — most of them girls.
Many of these children are on the streets — some 600,000 according to a recent Reuters report. Shafiqa Zaher, a social worker with a children's aid group that receives US funds, said, "most have a home, even if only a crumbling shell of a building, but their caregivers are often disabled and unemployed. Many are, therefore, forced into child labor. Poverty is getting worse in Afghanistan and children are forced to find work," said Zaher. (Nick Turse, "Afghanistan on Life Support,", 11/12/10)
Some 1,795 children in Afghanistan were killed or wounded in conflict-related violence from September 2008 to August 2010.
The Afghanistan enemy
Middle East expert Juan Cole writes that US forces in Afghanistan are not fighting Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, whose numbers in the country are very few, according to American security reports. They are "fighting disgruntled Pashtuns. Some are from Gulbuddin Hikmatyar's Islamic Party. Others from the Haqqani family's Haqqani Network.
"The Reagan administration and its Saudi allies once showered billions of dollars on Hikmatyar and Haqqani [to fight the Soviets], so they aren't exactly eternal adversaries of the US Some insurgents are from the Old Taliban of Mullah Omar. Still others are…tribes and guerrilla groups who are just unhappy with poppy eradication campaigns, or with the foreign troop presence (they would say 'occupation'), or with how [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has given out patronage unequally, favoring some tribes over others. The insurgency is almost exclusively drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group." (, 11/23/10)
Killing Afghan civilians
Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed in insurgent and foreign military action. Estimates are that many more civilians have been killed by insurgent groups than by the US But US killings of civilians, however accidental they may be, come with a lethal force Taliban groups do not have and from foreign troops who are mostly viewed as an occupying force.
US war on the insurgents includes air strikes, rocket attacks, night raids by US Special Operations Forces, and day assaults by regular army forces in towns, villages, and the countryside where ordinary Afghans live and work. A few notable episodes:
July 2008: An American plane or planes bombed an Afghan wedding party near the Pakistan border killing the bride and at least 27 others, including children.
August 2008: US air strikes killed at least 90 civilians, including perhaps 15 women and as many as 60 children, who were at a memorial service for a tribal leader in Azizabad, Herat Province.
April 2009: A U.S.-led raid in Khost Province killed the wife, daughter, son, and brother of an Afghan army commander who was away on duty at the time.
February 2010: US Special Forces in helicopters struck a convoy of minibuses, killing as many as 27 civilians, including women and children. In the same month, during a night raid on a village near the Pakistan border, American forces shot to death two pregnant women, a teenage girl, and a police officer and his brother. Soldiers reportedly dug the bullets out of the body, washed the wounds, and tried to cover up what they had done.
July 2010: Afghan officials reported that a missile attack on a house in southern Afghanistan killed 52 civilians, including women and children. They had taken shelter there from fighting between coalition forces. (Tom Englehardt, "Whose Hands? Whose Blood? Killing Civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq,", 8/5/10)
November 2010: Violence reached an all-time high, according to a new Pentagon report, as more US troops were deployed to Afghanistan Violence is up 300 percent since 2007 and 70 percent since last year. The report concludes that the US is making "slow progress."
What Afghan men think about US and its coalition
A survey of Afghan men by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) think-tank found that:
  • 75 percent believe foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions
  • 74 percent believe working with foreign forces is wrong
  • 68 percent believe NATO forces do not protect them
The fiercest fighting in Afghanistan is in Helmand and Kandahar provinces where the Taliban are strongest. In this area 92 percent of 1,000 Afghan men surveyed have never heard of the 9/11 attacks on the US, according to a report by the International Council on Security and Development. "The lack of awareness of why we are there contributes to the high levels of negativity toward the NATO military operations and made the job of the Taliban easier," ICOS President Norine MacDonald told Reuters from Washington. (
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered? 
2. Who are the US and its coalition allies fighting in Afghanistan? Why? 
3. Cole says the main enemy are "disgruntled Pashtuns." What are they disgruntled about?
4. Why are so many Afghan civilians killed in the war?
5. Why do you suppose Afghan men have such negative views of the foreigners in their country? If you need more information, where might you find it?

Student Reading 2: 

Mothers and daughters of Afghanistan

"The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free and are part of Afghanistan's new government." —President George W. Bush, 2002 State of the Union address
"The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted: Their family is their fate," writes New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin. "There is little chance for education, little choice about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house. Her primary job is to serve her husband's family. Outside that world, she is an outcast….'Violence in the lives of Afghanistan's women comes from everywhere,' said an Afghan plastic surgeon. The most sinister burn cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides, said doctors, nurses, and human rights workers." (Alissa Rubin, "For Afghan Wives a Desperate, Fiery Way Out,", 11/8/10)
All Afghans suffer from insecurity, but girls and women suffer the most.
"The American military had been engaged in Afghanistan for almost eight years before anyone seemed to notice the effects of the occupation on nearly half the adult population, which happens to be female," Ann Jones writes in The Nation ("Woman to Woman in Afghanistan,", 11/15/10)
Jones went to Afghanistan after 9/11, as she writes on her website, "to work as a humanitarian volunteer off and on for four years, documenting the cases of women detained in prison, lobbying for women's rights, and teaching Afghan high school English teachers." She visited Afghanistan regularly and wrote about her experiences. (
In her most recent Nation article, Jones reports that "among most Afghans, especially the nearly 80 percent who live in rural areas, the effect of the American military presence has been to replicate for women the confinement they suffered under the Taliban. Given cultural rules against mixing the sexes, Afghan men lock up their women to protect them from foreigners…."
The benefits of US projects are often unavailable to women. They can't use roads unless men accompany them. Mosques are for men only.
US Female Engagement Teams
But in March 2010, the US Marines trained forty women to serve in Helmand province as the first Female Engagement Teams (FETs). But, writes Jones, "it's one of the ironies of FETs that women soldiers, insufficiently trained to defend themselves, must still be escorted by men, just like Afghan women…." Most of the FETs prepackaged PowerPoint lessons were designed by men. Lists of recommended readings included stories of male "freedom fighters" but not one about Afghan women, writes Jones.
"One lesson, originally designed by men to teach men how to talk to men, taught FET women to pose 'four key questions' to the Afghan women they 'engage' - like, 'Have there been changes in the village population in the last year?' That's a question few women would be prepared to answer, living as most do within the confines of their family compound or immediate neighborhood."
"When the village women said they feared Taliban reprisals after our visit - raising the topic of the Taliban themselves - the team leader changed the subject. Later she explained that the purpose of the first visit is to 'build trust'; 'interviewing' is scheduled for subsequent meetings. The lost opportunity to learn something about the local Taliban while assuaging the women's fear was a reminder that flexibility is not taught by PowerPoint."
"The official FET mission report described the area visited as 'safe,' although the women who live there had tried to tell us that it is not safe for them." Much is lost in translation, notes Jones. "Many interpreters dislike the Army, having been asked to say and do things insulting to their Islamic beliefs; and many say that no matter what they translate, the Army will give it a positive spin, as indeed the Army did when this contentious encounter was officially reported as a success."
It is important to know that the FET Jones was with had less than two weeks of training, "and none of them had seen an Afghan woman before. The team had been taught to 'clear' a room at gunpoint but not to avoid treading on the floor mats or pointing the soles of their feet at their hosts…." The FET women "kept their boots on, in violation of Afghan hospitality. To show their respect for Afghan women, and identify themselves to onlookers as women, the Army FET had been taught to wear head scarves - in the style in which they are worn in Iraq. To "build relationships" they asked innocent questions such as "What foods do you like to cook?" (Answer: 'What we have.')…."
An official FET report found that one FET team "so shamed Afghan women by searching them at the entry to a health center in full view of men that when the FET returned for another visit, women patients shied away from the center and doctors asked the FET to leave. Another team, having learned that village women walked more than an hour each day to get water, had a well built in the village. The village women had the well destroyed; that daily walk for water was their only chance to escape the house and be together. 'Having poorly trained or badly employed FETs' is not better than having none," they conclude." ("Woman to Woman in Afghanistan,", 11/15/10)
Women's rights
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on a Shia "women's rights" law approved by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help his reelection campaign about a month before the August 20, 2009, presidential election. It included such provisions as a husband's right to stop providing his wife with food and other needs if she disobeys his sexual demands; a wife's duty to get permission from her husband to work; a rapist's opportunity to avoid punishment if he pays "blood money" to a girl he injured when he raped her. The HRW Asia director said, "So much for any credentials he [Karzai] claimed as a moderate on women's issues." (, 8/13/09)
In her article "Afghan Women Have Already Been Abandoned," Ann Jones writes that "the US pretense that somehow women's rights will be preserved if only we stay long enough to shore up the Karzai regime and the ragtag Afghan National Army is at best a delusion. Yet the specter of the demon Taliban somehow makes it seem plausible….
"What's taking place in Afghanistan is commonly depicted… as a battle of the forces of freedom, democracy and women's rights (that is, the United States and the Karzai government) against the demon Taliban. But the real struggle is between progressive Afghan women and men, many of them young, and a phalanx of regressive forces. For the United States, the problem is this: the regressive forces militating against women's rights and a democratic future for Afghanistan are headed by the demon Taliban, to be sure, but they also include the fundamentalist (and fundamentally misogynist) Karzai government, and us. (, 8/30/10-/9/6/10 edition)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. How are the lives of Afghan girls and women so restricted and insecure? Why?
3. What are FETs? What major problems do they face in trying to help Afghan women? What does the episode about the well built by Americans tell you about a major source of these problems?
4. Why does Jones conclude that Afghan women have been abandoned? Who or what is responsible, according to her?

Student Reading 3: 


"The law in this country is only for the poor," says Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar.
He was fired in August as deputy attorney general, apparently on the order of President Hamid Karzai. Faqiryar had refused to halt corruption investigations of more than two dozen top level officials in the Karzai government. (Dexter Filkins, "Inside Corrupt-istan,", 9/5/10)
"Cables Depict Heavy Afghan Graft, Starting at the Top" was the headline in the Times over a story that included examples from the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.The story begins: "From hundreds of diplomatic cables, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier." (12/2/10)
At the top is President Karzai, who, among other things, got himself reelected in 2009 through widespread fraud. Karzai pardoned border police officers caught with 124 kilograms of heroin, according to a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks, though they had been sentenced to serve long prison terms.
More recently, Karzai said that the Iranians "do give us bags of money - yes, yes, it is done." Karzai was acknowledging the accuracy of a New York Times account of Iran's ambassador to Afghanistan handing Umar Daudzai, Karzai's chief of staff, "a large plastic bag bulging with packs of euro bills….The payments, which officials say total millions of dollars, form an off-the-books fund that Mr. Daudzai and Mr. Karzai have used to pay Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders and even Taliban commanders to secure their loyalty….'Patriotism has a price,' he said." (10/24/10)
In another WikiLeaks cable, an Afghan official told diplomats at which points his colleagues "skimmed money from American development projects": "'When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.'"
Last year the American Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, sent a cable to Washington citing "one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt."
After the recent Afghanistan parliamentary elections, about 25% of the candidates who would have won if the election had been fair instead lost because of blatant fraud.
Afghan police
"America has spent more than $6 billion since 2002 in an effort to create an effective Afghan police force, buying weapons, building police academies, and hiring defense contractors to train the recruits-but the program has been a disaster," a Newsweek team of reporters concludes. Why? Where the money has gone is unclear. Only a fraction of police units can operate on their own. An American lieutenant says of the people living in Marja, "You constantly hear these stories about who was worse: the Afghan police that were there or the Taliban." Ambassador Richard Holbrooke called the police "an inadequate organization, riddled with corruption." ("The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," 3/29/10)
Reports on police behavior in Marja included abandoning check points, disappearing for hours' long lunch breaks, refusing to work or send out patrols at night, and hashish smoking by many police sergeants. (C. J. Chivers, "Top Afghan Police Unit Earns Poor Grade for Mission in Marja,", 6/2/10)
The Afghan police ranks "are riddled with drug addicts and corrupt officers are the norm; 80 percent are illiterate." (Ron Nordland, in Kabul,, 11/21/10)
US money to bribe Taliban
The US has a $2.2 billion program called Host Nation Trucking, which contracts with Afghan and American companies to truck food and other supplies to bases in Afghanistan. It is up to the trucking companies to protect themselves during hauls through insecure areas, so they hire one of the many security companies operating in the country at a cost of $800 to $2,500 per truck. The cost is high because the trucks must run through areas controlled by Taliban, warlords, and/or tribal militias.
"For months," Dexter Filkins writes from Afghanistan, "reports have abounded…that the Afghan mercenaries who escort American and other NATO convoys through the badlands have been bribing Taliban insurgents to let them pass." ("US Suspects Bribes to Taliban Forces,", 6/7/10)
Investigative journalist Aram Roston learned that "the US military's contractors are forced to pay suspected insurgents to protect American supply routes." A project manager for a trucking company told him, "You are paying the people in the local areas - some are warlords, some are politicians in the police force - to move your trucks through."
A Senate Armed Services Committee investigation revealed that "Afghan private security forces with ties to Taliban criminal networks and Iranian intelligence have been hired to guard American military bases in Afghanistan, exposing United States soldiers to surprise attack and confounding the fight against insurgents…."
Another revelation concerns the more than 26,000 private security employees in Afghanistan, most of them working under US contract or subcontract. "Almost all are tied to the militias of local warlords and other powerful Afghan figures outside the control of the American military or the Afghan government." (James Risen, "Afghans Linked to the Taliban Guard US Bases,", 10/8/10)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. The reading provides examples of the pervasive corruption of Afghan officials, starting at the top, with Karzai himself. What difference does this make to the US war effort? To the US Treasury? If you need more information, how might you find it? 
3. How would you explain why the Afghanistan war received virtually no attention from candidates in the US 2010 elections?
4. How would you explain why the Afghanistan war has lasted so long? If you need more information, how might you find it?

Student Reading 4: 

Some closing words

"…I believe America's strategy in Afghanistan is not working….American troops these days try hard to be respectful and avoid civilian casualties….But after nine years, many Afghans are sick of us….We're inadvertently financing our adversaries. We're backing a corrupt government that drives people to the Taliban. And we're more eager to rescue the Afghans than the Afghans are to be rescued." (Nicholas Kristof, "Tea in Kabul,", 10/15/10)
"The war is costing on the order of $7 billion a month, a sum that is still being borrowed and adding nearly $100 billion a year to the already-burgeoning national debt. Yet in all the talk in all the [2010 election] campaigns…about the dangers of the federal budget deficit, hardly any candidates fingered the war as economically unsustainable." (Juan Cole,, 11/16/10)
On his most recent visit to American troops in Afghanistan, President Obama said, "Thanks to your service, we are making important progress….Because of the service of the men and women of the United States military, because of the progress you're making, we look forward to a new phase next year, the beginning of a transition to Afghan responsibility." (12/3/10)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in November 2010, "We're not getting out. We're talking about probably a years-long process." (For details, see Tom Engelhardt, "The Incredible Shrinking Withdrawal Date,", 11/23/10)
"Leaked memos show European Union President Herman Van Rompuy told the US ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, that the EU no longer believes in the success of the military mission in Afghanistan," reported the Sidney (Australia) Morning Herald on 12/6/10. "Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister, suggested European troops are still being deployed only to bow to what the United States wants.
"'Europe is doing it and will go along out of deference to the United States, but not out of deference to Afghanistan,'European Union President Herman Van Rompuy told the US ambassador to Belgium last year, according to a cable posted by the WikiLeaks whistleblowing website December 9. 'No one believes in Afghanistan any more. But we will give it 2010 to see results. If it doesn't work, that will be because it is the last chance.'
"European countries in NATO have about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, the US about 100,000. ("EU no longer believes in Afghanistan: cable," story in in the Sidney (Australia) Morning Herald, 12/6/10,
For discussion
1. What evidence in the readings support or contradict Kristof's conclusions about the American strategy in Afghanistan? What other evidence do you think is relevant?
2. How would you explain why the Afghanistan war received virtually no attention from candidates in the US 2010 elections, especially at a time when US debt is so great and cutting its budget deficit gets so much attention?
3. Based on what you know about US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, do you think the US is making "slow progress"? Important progress? If you need more information, how might you find it?
4. How would you explain why the Afghanistan war has lasted so long? If you need more information, how might you find it?

For inquiry

One hundred thousand US troops are currently in Afghanistan, a country most Americans know little about. The readings raise issues that have the potential to generate questions, motivate student inquiry, and create opportunities for learning how to use one's mind. Among them, in no particular order of importance, might be:
  1. student questions about Afghanistan
  2. the opium trade
  3. ethnic group loyalty
  4. the Pashtuns
  5. the war with the Soviet Union
  6. the civil war that followed the Soviet war
  7. the Taliban
  8. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan
  9. negative Afghan views of the US
  10. purpose(s) of the US presence in Afghanistan
  11. "slow progress" of USin Afghanistan
  12. the lives of Afghan girls and women 
  13. problems in training Afghan police and soldiers
  14. Hamid Karzai
  15. General Petraeus
  16. private security forces in Afghanistan
  17. corruption in Afghanistan
Student inquiries should begin with questions they analyze closely. For suggestions to help students with question-asking and question-analyzing, critical thinking, and pursuing inquiries, see "Thinking Is Questioning," "Teaching Critical Thinking," and "The Plagiarism Perplex" on TeachableMoment. For an approach to an inquiry project, see especially Reading 2 in "The CIA: An Inquiry" in the high school section of this site. 

For citizenship

Inquiry projects also offer opportunities for developing student citizenship through both schoolwide and community activities. See "Teaching Social Responsibility" for suggestions.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: