POSTWAR AFGHANISTAN: Problems, Dangers, Costs

Background reading and activities to help students make sense of the latest news.

To the Teacher:

Afghanistan is a place students probably know little about. They may remember that it was a training ground for Osama bin Laden and those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that it was defeated in a brief war led by the U.S. But with Afghanistan's problems again in the news, students might want to know more.

Student Reading

Afghanistan: A Country with a Need for Almost Everything

  • In the ancient western city of Herat truckers coming from Iran pay duty at a customs house - a legal tax that is imposed on goods crossing the border. The daily fees amount to somewhere between $250,000 and $1,500,000 that should be forwarded to the central government in Kabul. Instead, the warlord of Herat, Ismail Khan, keeps most of the money and uses it for his own purposes.
  • Fifteen people are killed when a bomb explodes on their bus in southern Afghanistan. In the east suspected Taliban guerrillas kill five government soldiers. In Kabul two university students die when a bomb they are making goes off accidentally.
  • Two American soldiers are killed in southeast Afghanistan during a week of fighting. The Pentagon reports that dozens of Taliban have been killed as well as nine Afghan soldiers. Attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan average more than one a day. Land mines litter the countryside, adding to the dangers of life in the country.
  • As a farmer and his nephew cut poppy stalks in northern Afghanistan, he says he can get $100 from his fields if he grows wheat, but $1,000 if he grows poppies (to make the drug opium). He has already sold enough opium resin to buy grain that will provide bread for his family this winter.
  • Suspected Taliban supporters burn down a school in southeastern Afghanistan whose students include girls. Taliban forces kill seven bodyguards of the governor of a southern Afghanistan province and escape. A Taliban commander says the group's goal is to force the U.S. to spend huge sums to defend the country and after two or three years of a costly and seemingly endless conflict to abandon it. (New York Times, 9/12/03)
  • A suicide bomber kills five Afghan intelligence officers and himself near Kabul's international airport.
These are some of the reports from Afghanistan during the second half of 2003.
In recent months:
1) Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have become increasingly active.
2) Warlords have continued to run large portions of the country and refuse to send tax revenues to the central government in Kabul.
3) Reconstruction efforts have slowed and humanitarian workers withdrawn because staff members have been murdered.
4) The poppy harvest has produced drug profits that are larger than the central government's budget and international aid funds combined.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. determined that the perpetrators had been operating out of Afghanistan. The Bush administration demanded that Afghanistan's government, then controlled by a group of extremist Muslims known as the Taliban, surrender Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers and close down their training camps. The Taliban refused. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. and Britain opened an attack on Afghanistan with airstrikes on the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad and followed them with an invasion of the country. By the end of the year, with help from Afghan rebel armies opposed to the Taliban, the allies had destroyed the Al Qaeda camps, ousted the Taliban leaders and set up a new transitional Afghan government.
Despite this swift military victory, Osama bin Laden, the presumed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Taliban government, and a significant number of their followers escaped, probably to the mountainous regions on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Afghanistan is a miserably poor, rugged country slightly smaller than Texas with a population of nearly 30,000,000. But its position in Central Asia has made it a target for foreign attackers going back at least to Alexander the Great in 329 B.C. Turkish invaders in the tenth century A.D. imposed the Muslim religion. In 1219 Genghis Khan's Mongols devastated the country, slaughtering people and turning much of Afghanistan into a desert by destroying its agricultural irrigation system.
A hundred years later the Tatars led by Tamerlane forced the country into its Asian empire. In the 19th century Britain and Russia competed for control of Afghanistan, the British winning out after suffering massacres of their troops by Afghan resisters. After the British withdrew in the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union won dominance of Afghanistan. But in 1989 it was driven from the country by Afghan armies supported by the U.S. and its allies. In the civil wars that followed in the 1990s, the Taliban and its very strict interpretation of Islam were victorious. Now yet another foreign conqueror, the U.S., has the major responsibility for Afghanistan's future.
Decades of war, devastating droughts, and political uncertainty about their future have had a terrible impact on the Afghan people. Most are dirt-poor and many are without work and dependent on foreign aid. About half of the men are literate but only about one in five women. Afghan life expectancy is about 47 years.
Some progress has been made in the past two years. About 2 million of the 4-6 million Afghan refugees who fled to Iran and Pakistan during the Soviet period have returned in the hope of finding a better life than they have in the refugee camps. In the capital, Kabul, and in northern cities business has picked up. In some areas, women can walk the streets without wearing the Taliban-imposed body-covering burka. Girls can go to school, which they could not under Taliban rule. Roads are being repaired and buildings reconstructed. The U.S. and France are training security forces. A new government is in operation.
On January 4, 2004, after three weeks of tense and often angry debate, Afghan delegates approved a new Constitution. It sets up the first democratic system that Afghanistan has ever experienced and includes provisions for:
  • a democratically elected president and two-chamber national assembly
  • a system of civil law that does not permit any law contrary to Islamic belief
  • equal rights for men and women
  • women to be guaranteed 25% of the seats in the lower national assembly chamber
  • freedom for those who are not Muslims to practice their religions
  • recognition of Pashtun and Dari languages as the official languages with others to be regarded as official in areas where they are spoken
In recognition of the new country's combination of democracy and the Muslim religion, its official name will be the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. President Bush hailed the new Constitution, saying that it would "help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in Afghanistan." The UN's special representative Lakhdar Brahmini said the new Constitution was not perfect but "a source of hope," adding that continuing insecurity and corruption in the country represent its greatest immediate challenges.
But like Iraq, Afghanistan has two interconnected basic requirements: (1) security so its people can live and work in peace and (2) a political system that has the power to provide security through an effective police force and justice system. As recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate, these two requirements have not yet been met. Throughout Afghanistan robberies, kidnappings, extortions, rapes and beatings are common, according to a recent report, "Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us" by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization.
But now it is not only the Taliban who are responsible for such crimes but Afghan police, intelligence agents, soldiers, even government officials. The central government controls little outside of the capital, Kabul. Elsewhere, ethnic rivalries and power struggles abound. As has been the tradition for centuries, people are loyal to their ethnic leaders and local warlords of such groups as the near-majority Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazara, Uzbeks and Turkmen in various parts of the country — and not to Kabul. Conflicts between these groups leads to violence and crime-and makes consistent and fair enforcement of national laws virtually impossible.
The Human Rights Watch report blames all nations involved in Afghanistan (including the NATO nations that provide 90 percent of the peacekeeping forces) for not stopping the abuses. But mostly it blames the U.S., the dominant force in the country. During the war the U.S. welcomed the support of warlords who opposed the Taliban, supplying them with money and arms. Then the U.S. invited the warlords into the new government. Now, the warlords give lip service to Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, but have their own armies and keep taxes they should forward to Kabul.
"The United States in particular bears much of the responsibility for the actions of those they have propelled in power," the Human Rights Watch report says, "for failing to take steps against other abusive leaders, and for impeding attempts to force them to step aside. Their continued funding, joint operations and fraternizing with warlords has sent, at best, mixed messages about their goals and intentions."
Afghanistan needs almost everything. Robert Finn, an American official in the country, says, "There is almost no infrastructure left. And mostly there was never any infrastructure, electricity, water. You have to supply everything." He says that only three of 32 provinces have a telephone connection to Kabul and that "the country was absolutely medieval in some places." (New York Times, 6/1/03)
The U.S. currently spends $11 billion a year on its military forces in Afghanistan and an additional $800 million in reconstruction aid. The Bush administration expects Congress to approve still more. Other nations have pledged significant sums but are slow to pay them. Until recently, much of the available money for reconstruction had to be spent for humanitarian purposes—food, blankets, medicine.
The main road in a country with few railroads runs for 300 miles between Kabul and Kandahar. It is a vital trade route and essential for the unity of the new nation. More than two years after the war officially ended, its reconstruction was completed with the help of $190 million from the U.S.. What had required as much as 30 hours of driving can now be completed in six hours or less. But the route is hazardous.
Taliban guerrillas and bandits who roam the territory hijack trucks and their cargoes, and rob and kill travellers. Like Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan remains a very difficult, expensive, and dangerous work in progress.


Classroom Activities

You might begin by reading the opening of a recent news article about Afghanistan. For example, on September 7, 2003 the New York Times reported that attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan average more than one a day.
Locate Afghanistan on a map. What do students know about this country? Why are American soldiers there? Who is attacking them? Why? Are students aware that 8,500 American soldiers are in Afghanistan and that the U.S. is spending monthly about $1 billion in the country to support those troops and to rebuild Afghanistan? Note on the chalkboard without comment student responses.
Where does student information come from? How accurate is it? What do students know? What do they think they know but aren't sure about? What questions do they have? How might these questions be answered? At least some of these questions can probably be answered after students have completed the reading.
For Discussion
1. Why did the U.S. and Britain attack Afghanistan?
2. What are now major problems in that country?
3. What progress has been made in solving them?
4. Why does a recent report blame the U.S., in particular, for not stopping human rights abuses?
5. Why do you suppose the U.S. has not stopped them?
For Further Inquiry
1. Student questions that require further investigation. For a detailed consideration of student questions, see "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website.
2. An examination of the following question: Should the U.S. continue its efforts in Afghanistan? Why or why not?
Obviously, a response to the latter question will involve students in an inquiry of some depth. This calls for answers to such questions as:
  • What does the Bush administration say it is attempting to accomplish in Afghanistan? Why? How?
  • What evidence and reasons are there to believe that these efforts will or will not succeed?
  • What do critics of the Bush administration offer as alternatives?
  • What evidence and reasons are there to believe that these alternatives are or are not better than the current plans?
  • What does the history of Afghanistan suggest about the difficulties involved in efforts to change the country?
Continuing Study and Discussion
You may want to have students follow developments in Afghanistan over an extended period. A possible approach would be to divide the class into groups of five to seven students and assign one of the following issues to each:
1. Violence in Afghanistan
2. Progress in rebuilding the country physically
3. Progress in rebuilding the country politically—e.g., increasing the power of the central government and reducing that of the warlords
4. Congressional debate and decisions about Afghanistan—e.g., allocating money for that country, debating plans for its rebuilding
Have students follow news report on their issue regularly in several news sources—e.g., a local newspaper, a mainstream TV network or cable source, a foreign news source (e.g., the BBC World Service on the web—, and an alternative news source (e.g.,, The Nation, alternative radio). Provide 15 minutes weekly for meetings in which groups can share each member's findings. Provide additional time for students in each group, on a rotating basis, to summarize those findings for the class and to discuss them.
Other Possible Student Activities
1. Have students write letters to President Bush supporting/criticizing his policies and actions in Afghanistan.
2. Help students organize a "U.S. international policy club" for regular meetings, discussions and actions.
3. Help students arrange a visit to a senator's office to express their views about U.S. policies and actions in Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch, "Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us," (7/03)
Central Intelligence Agency (
Newsweek, August 16, 2002
New York Times (various issues, June-September, 2003, but especially 6/1/03 magazine section article by Barry Bearak)
Defense Monitor, 9/02 and 11/02
Center for Defense Information (
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: