Obama's strategy in AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN, with a DBQ

An introduction and two student readings discuss the president's view of the Afghanistan/Pakistan connection and what he thinks must be done in both countries. A companion Document-Based Question (DBQ) exercise asks students to consider and write about competing views of the president's strategy.

To the Teacher:

The U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is in its eighth year with no sign of a solution to the complex problems in that country or in neighboring Pakistan. President Obama recently announced what he calls a "new and comprehensive strategy," which attempts to provide that solution.
Below, an introduction and two student readings discuss the president's view of the Afghanistan/Pakistan connection, and what he thinks must be done in both countries. The readings aim to explain problems and complexities and raise questions about the situations in the two nations. Discussion questions follow.
A companion Document-Based Question (DBQ) exercise asks students to consider and write an essay about competing views of the president's strategy.
See also "What Will President Obama Do About Afghanistan & Pakistan?" in the high school section of TeachableMoment.Org.


The Afghanistan/Pakistan connection

President Obama: "Many people in the United States—and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much—have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan? After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there?"
The president's answer: "Al Qaeda and its allies—the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks—are in Pakistan and Afghanistan..." and are "actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from [their] safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban—or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged—that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can." (3/27/09)
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, US forces invaded Afghanistan. Its Taliban government had provided a haven for al Qaeda and refused to turn over its leaders, among them Osama bin Laden. The US quickly routed the Taliban and al Qaeda militants. But al Qaeda leaders and some followers escaped into the bordering and rugged western mountains of Pakistan, over which Pakistan's government has never had much control. The Bush administration then turned its attention to Iraq.
The Taliban regrouped in western Pakistan. According to Middle East scholar Juan Cole, "what we now call the 'Taliban' are actually five distinct groups and movements." They include the original Taliban led by Mullah Omar, which is now based in Quetta, a western frontier city of Pakistan. Others include two warlord-led groups, a relatively new Pakistan Taliban, and "Pashtun villagers who object to foreign troops on their soil or whose poppy crops were forcibly eradicated, leaving them destitute." All together, these "Taliban" groups have thousands of fighters they can send into and out of Afghanistan, and they now control southern areas of that country. (www.juancole.com, 2/27/09)
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) supported the Taliban's original rise to power in Afghanistan during the 1990s. It did this because it did not want the Taliban to fall under the influence of Pakistan's enemy, India. The enmity between India and Pakistan centers on their fight for control of the mountainous region of Kashmir, which borders both countries. In 1947, a British colonial Hindu leader turned over the south and central portions of Kashmir to India, setting off the first of three wars India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir. For years, Pakistan, a Muslim nation, has demanded a plebiscite of Kashmir's mainly Muslim population. India has refused. Kashmir is at the root of the India and Pakistan's rivalry for influence in Afghanistan and, more ominously, their nuclear-armed hostility.
The relationship among Pakistan's government, its army and the ISI is cloudy. Despite government denials, elements of the ISI and army still support the Taliban. US officials say that "the Taliban's widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan's military intelligence agency, despite Pakistani government promises to sever ties to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan." Their information reportedly comes from "electronic surveillance and trusted informants." ("US Says Agents of Pakistan Aid Afghan Taliban," New York Times, 3/26/09)
A few hundred al Qaeda fighters based in Pakistan are loosely allied with the Taliban. Both groups follow a strict fundamentalist version of Islam. But their goals differ. The Afghan Taliban fights to regain control of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda seeks a return to a larger union of Islamic states that existed for a time after the death of Mohammad and hundreds of years ago.
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the introduction? How might they be answered?
2. According to President Obama, what is the U.S.'s purpose in Afghanistan?
3. When and why did the U.S. invade Afghanistan? Why was its initial victory incomplete?
4. What does Pakistan have to do with the warfare in Afghanistan? Why?
5. What is the basis of the Pakistan-India rivalry? What does it have to do with Afghanistan? Why does the ISI still support the Taliban?


Student Reading 1: 

The president on what needs to be done in Pakistan

"Pakistan needs our help in going after al Qaeda," President Obama said. "This is no simple task. The tribal regions are vast, they are rugged, and they are often ungoverned. And that's why we must focus our military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists. And after years of mixed results, we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check...
"Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda... And we will insist that action be taken—one way or another—when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets..."
"To lessen tensions between two nuclear-armed nations...we must pursue constructive diplomacy with both India and Pakistan...
"Al Qaeda offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction. We stand for something different. So today, I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill...that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years—resources that will build schools and roads and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan's democracy...I'm also calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill...that creates opportunity zones in the border regions to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued with violence..." [The Pentagon is proposing to spend an additional $3 billion over the next five years to train and equip Pakistan;s military.]
"The American people must understand that is a down payment on our own future—because the security of America and Pakistan is shared. Pakistan's government must be a stronger partner in destroying these safe havens, and we must isolate al Qaeda from the Pakistani people. And these steps in Pakistan are also indispensable to our efforts in Afghanistan, which will see no end to violence if insurgents move freely back and forth across the border."
Soon after 9/11, the Bush administration began a program that ultimately provided Pakistan with $12 billion in US support. Most of that sum was targeted for a military effort to deny a safe haven to Taliban and al Qaeda forces and to kill or capture its leaders. American officials frequently complained that Pakistan's effort was halfhearted and insufficient. It appears that the major reasons for this were: 1) the ISI's continuing support for the Taliban; and 2) the government's fear of making a serious assault on Taliban bases in the fiercely independent tribal areas that have harbored them.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the New York Times that in addition, "American lawmakers have complained that much of that money has disappeared into Pakistani government coffers with scant accountability and little progress to show. There hasn't been an audit trail and there haven't been accountability measures put in place, and there needs to be for all the funds. So we're going to do that. For this counterinsurgency money, which is important, it is critical that it goes for exactly that and nowhere else." (New York Times, 4/3/09)
Further complicating President Obama's Pakistan strategy has been the creation of a homegrown Pakistani Taliban insurgency. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Pakistani group is based in the western part of Pakistan. But it is different in that its suicide attacks and other assaults are aimed at destabilizing a weak Pakistan government. Twice in March militants struck in and around Lahore in eastern Pakistan, most recently at a police academy, killing at least 13 and wounding more than 100. In early April, multiple suicide bombings killed dozens of people. One such bombing hit a station that had been set up to protect diplomats and wealthy residents.
Pakistanis overwhelmingly reject any US military presence in Pakistan. Juan Cole reports: "A year ago, an opinion poll found that 'most Pakistanis do not believe that Pakistan-U.S. security cooperation has benefited Pakistan. Eighty-four percent see the US military presence in Asia as a greater threat to Pakistan than al Qaeda and the Taliban (60 percent). Two-thirds of the Pakistanis polled do not trust the United States to 'act responsibly in the world,' and a vast majority thinks the United States aims to 'weaken and divide the Islamic world.'"(Juan Cole, www.juancole.com, 3/28/09)
President Obama's statement suggests that the US will continue to act against what it regards as "terrorist targets" in western Pakistan. This has meant bombing attacks by pilotless drones. An editorial in a Pakistani daily newspaper stated, "The United States always claims that foreign militants have been killed in drone attacks...However, the stance of the local people has been on the contrary." Other Pakistani newspapers have agreed. Pakistanis are angered by the drone attacks, which inevitably kill civilians as well as militants.
Can Pakistan do what President Obama says it "must" do? Will it? What does Obama mean when he insists that "action be taken one way or another"? What does he mean when he says that the US will not provide Pakistan with a "blank check"?
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why has Pakistan made little progress in controlling its western areas, where the Taliban and al Qaeda operate? 
3. What does President Obama say that Pakistan "must" do? Why?
4. What problems can you foresee if the Pakistan government does what the president wants? Why?
5. What help does the president propose to provide Pakistan? Why?
6. Why does the president think the security of America and Pakistan is "shared"?
7. How would you account for the negative views of Pakistanis toward the US?
8. How would you answer the questions that close the reading?

Student Reading 2: 

The president on what needs to be done in Afghanistan

President Obama announced earlier that he will raise the number of American troops in Afghanistan to about 68,000 from the 38,000 already there. (This is in addition to the 71,000 private contractors already in Afghanistan who provide a variety of services, including security.) 4,000 US soldiers will be assigned to help train and build the Afghani army and police.
To provide "a dramatic increase" in our civilian effort "to advance security, opportunity and justice," Obama will send "agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers...to help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs." (Afghanistan is the world's chief source of opium, made from poppies.) He will seek NATO, United Nations and international aid organization support for this effort.
"And I want to be clear: We cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders. Instead, we will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior, and sets clear benchmarks...for international assistance."
The president called for an effort aimed at "those [Taliban] who've taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price...[to] have the option to choose a different course." That is, to participate in "a reconciliation process," as many Iraqi insurgents who came to oppose al Qaeda were willing to do. The rest of the Taliban, President Obama said, "must be defeated."
"And finally, together with the United Nations," Obama said, "together all who should have a stake in the security of the region—our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran, Russia, India and China. None of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development."
The additional American combat troops Obama plans to send to Afghanistan are charged with reversing Taliban control of Afghan territory and protecting Afghan civilians. NATO's role in this campaign is limited mostly to service and support. Despite repeated requests, the U.S.'s NATO allies have been unwilling to add combat troops. It is not clear what the Afghan government and the U.S. will do to induce Afghan Taliban members to desert their insurgency. To get Iraqi insurgents to desert a Qaeda, the U.S. had to pay the insurgents to provide security in neighborhoods.
Today, Afghanistan's poppies produce about 90 percent of the world's heroin. The Taliban gains several hundred million dollars yearly from heroin produced in the areas it controls, and this money fuels its insurgency. Many Afghan farmers make their living from poppy cultivation and will not give it up unless some other crop would provide it. Eradicating the poppies will take a huge effort.
The out-of-control corruption of the Afghan government includes "people at the highest levels of the Karzai administration, according to the New York Times—including President Hamid Karzai's own brother. These officials, charges Times reporter Dexter Filkins, "are cooperating in the country's opium trade, now the world's largest. In the streets and government offices, hardly a public transaction seems to unfold... that does not carry with it the requirement of a bribe." It will be very difficult to bring this corruption under control in a country where public employees are poorly paid and make much of their living from bribes. (Dexter Filkins, "Bribes Corrode Afghans' Trust in Government," New York Times, 1/2/09)
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan supports President Obama's plan. "It is exactly what the Afghan people were hoping for," he said. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan called the plan a "positive change" and said that his country also needed "to root out extremism and militancy." But what either leader is willing or able to do remains to be seen.

For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What are the major elements in the president's plan for Afghanistan?
3. Why is eliminating, or at least vastly reducing, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan an American goal? Why is eliminating corruption in the Afghan government a major goal? Why will accomplishing these goals be very difficult?

Document-Based Question Exercise:

The Afghanistan/Pakistan Strategy-Problems & Complexities

Read each paragraph, then answer the question following it. After you have read all of the paragraphs, write an essay in response to item G.


With his new comprehensive plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama has asserted leadership over the war that matters most to America's security—the one against al Qaeda and the Taliban...Mr. Obama's plan breaks welcome new ground by treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single coherent theater of operation. It finally sets benchmarks for measuring progress by Kabul and Islamabad. It seeks to bring other regional players into the discussion, including Iran and Russia. The new plan also recognizes there is no military-only solution...America cannot hope to defeat the insurgents if Afghans and Pakistanis don't see their lives improve.
Editorial, New York Times
Question: What is new about the Obama plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan?


The US is not, contrary to what the president said, mainly fighting "al Qaeda" in Afghanistan...There are very few al Qaeda fighters based in Afghanistan proper....The groups being branded "Taliban" have only substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them...As for the threat to Pakistan, [the tribal areas] are smaller than Connecticut...while Pakistan itself is bigger than Texas, with a population more than half that of the entire United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen cannot take over Pakistan... When a policy maker gets the rationale for action wrong, he is at particular risk of...[a] stubborn commitment to a doomed and unnecessary enterprise.
—Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history, University of Michigan
Question: Why may the Obama strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan be doomed?


After years of our country's being bogged down in Iraq, the president recognizes that the key to our national security is defeating al Qaeda, and that to do so we must address both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But while the president clearly understands that the greatest threat to our nation resides in Pakistan...the decision to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan before fully confronting the terrorist safe havens and instability in Pakistan could very well prove counterproductive. Increased military engagement against the Taliban in Afghanistan could push it further into Pakistan while aggravating the militant extremism that has spread to more and more parts of that country.
—Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat from Wisconsin
Question: Why may the Obama strategy not achieve its aims?


The false choice view [of Senator Feingold] overly simplifies the relationship between the two countries...More troops are...required if the United States and its allies are to have any chance at stabilizing Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan does not achieve a modicum of security and effective governance, Pakistani militants will have a secure rear area in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. If that happens, the basic dynamic of the last seven years—a Pakistani safe haven for militants fighting the United States in Afghanistan—will be reversed, with an Afghan safe haven for militants fighting the Pakistani government....Afghanistan and Pakistan [are] a single unified challenge that can only be solved through coordinated action in both countries.
—Brian Katulis and Peter Juul, Center for American Progress
Question: Why is stabilizing Afghanistan a very important element in the Obama strategy?


Obama has been under pressure to scale down his ambitions for Afghanistan. But he did not. Afghanistan has been starved of resources. His plan seeks to redress that mistake. Obama rejected the false hope of escape by way of a bargain with some version of the Taliban, or letting them overrun Afghanistan while we focus on current al Qaeda sanctuaries. Most important, he stressed the role of government abuse in driving Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. This is a conflict based on practical grievances, not ideology; at last, we must stop ignoring the corruption of officials we ushered into power—and the graft and mismanagement that have characterized our own development effort.
—Sarah Chayes, adviser to Gen. David McKiernan, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan
Question: What is the most important element in Obama's strategy?


I liked President Obama's plan for Afghanistan, as far as it went. Reducing American goals and training Afghan security forces makes sense. And reaching out to less extreme Taliban leaders is also worth trying. But I was surprised by how little the president had to offer on the other big problems. Sure, corruption in Afghanistan is easy to denounce, Mr. President, but what are you going to do about it?....What about the Pakistani military? The saying is that most countries have militaries, while in Pakistan the military has a country. Right now the Pakistani armed forces are part of the problem. Obama gave no indication of how they might be made part of the solution."
—Thomas Ricks, military correspondent for the Washington Post (2000-2008) and author
Question: What is missing from the Obama strategy?


Views on the Obama strategy for Afghanistan/Pakistan differ sharply.
Using information from the documents and your knowledge from other sources, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs and a conclusion in which you:
  • compare and contrast different viewpoints on the Obama strategy
  • discuss your own view and the reasons for it
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.