Thinking Critically about Obama's Speech on AFGHANISTAN/PAKISTAN STRATEGY

December 9, 2009

A student reading excerpts the president's speech; the second raises a battery of questions to stimulate further inquiry and critical thinking on a vital presidential decision.

To the Teacher:

President Obama's December 1, 2009, speech about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan offers an especially significant teachable moment. Through reading, discussion, and inquiry, students can consider the what, how, and why of a war that has already lasted more than eight years.

The first student reading below provides excerpts from the president's speech. The second includes some background information, and raises a battery of questions to stimulate further inquiry and critical thinking on a vital presidential decision.

For earlier background materials on the war, see "Obama's Strategy in Afghanistan & Pakistan" and a DBQ in the high school section.  Also in that section of the site, see "Thinking Is Questioning" for suggestions about teaching students to ask good questions. For an approach to an inquiry project, see "The Plagiarism Perplex" in the "Ideas & Essays" section of TeachableMoment.


Student Reading 1:

The speech


Excerpts from President Obama's speech on December 1:

...It's important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place. We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people...As we know, these men belonged to al Qaeda — a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world's great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents. Al Qaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban — a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war...

We've made progress on some important objectives. High-ranking al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we've stepped up the pressure on al Qaeda worldwide. In Pakistan, that nation's army has gone on its largest offensive in years. In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and — although it was marred by fraud — that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution...

Yet huge challenges remain. Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards...Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

[After] a thorough review of our strategy...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 new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I'll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.

I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak...

The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered. And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them...

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. To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

We will meet these objectives in three ways...One, a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months...Because this is an international effort, I've asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we're confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead...

But taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011...

Second, we will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security...

Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan. We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who've argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence. But in recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed...

There are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort — one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan...

Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination...We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for — what we continue to fight for — is a better future for our children and grandchildren. And we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

For discussion

What questions do students have about the president's strategy? Which, if any, of these questions require further inquiry? (The teacher might want to add some of those that follow.)


Student Reading 2:

Some critical issues and questions


The origins of the Afghanistan war

The president emphasized at the beginning of his speech that the nineteen 9/11 terrorists belonged to Al Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan. He did not mention that none were Afghans or lived in Afghanistan, that 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia, the other four from other Middle East countries, that their plotting and training took place in Hamburg, Germany, and in Florida, and that their flight training was also completed in the United States.

Why do you suppose that the president omitted this information?


Fraud and other problems in Afghanistan

In what ways was the Afghan election "marred by fraud"? Who profited from the fraud?

What evidence is there to support the president's conclusions that the election "produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution"?

Juan Cole, a Middle East expert, wrote, "Months after the controversial presidential election that many Afghans consider stolen, there is no cabinet.... There are grave suspicions that some past and present cabinet members have engaged in the embezzlement of substantial sums of money. There is little parliamentary oversight. Almost no one bothers to attend the parliamentary sessions." (, 12/1/09)

Senator Russ Feingold (Wisconsin Democrat) said of the president's plan, "It's an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy."

What evidence is there that President Karzai and the Afghan government are equipped to take "the lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future"?

How much of Afghanistan is controlled by the Karzai government? By the Taliban?

What evidence is there that Afghanistan has "moved backwards" for several years? Who or what is responsible?

Dexter Filkins, a New York Times investigative reporter who has worked in Afghanistan, wrote that "The Afghan Army and police have shown themselves unable to maintain themselves in the field, to purge their ranks of corruption, to mount operations at night or to operate any weapons more complicated than a rifle...When it comes to paying their soldiers, keeping them fed, providing them with ammunition and equipment, tracking who is on leave and who is injured, most Afghan units perform very poorly." An American involved in training Afghan forces said that an Afghan recruit "does not have to master any task prior to graduating. Attendance equals graduation." (New York Times, 12/2/09)

Is there evidence that US Army trainers can do what the president said "must" be done, "strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces"?

The president's speech assumes that the US has the support of the Afghan people. But the Wall Street Journal stated on the day of his speech that "when the US forces enter an area, the levels of violence generally increase, causing anger and dissatisfaction among the local population." TheJournal quoted a pro-Karzai parliamentarian who said, "If new troops come and are stationed in civilian areas, when they draw Taliban attacks civilians will end up being killed."

In his New York Times op-ed column (12/3/09), Nicholas Kristof quoted Greg Mortenson, who has devoted much of his life to building dozens of schools, especially for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and wrote about it in his book Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson said that what was "most concerning" to him about Obama's speech was that "there was never any consultation with the Afghan shura, the tribal elders. One of the elders' messages is we don't need firepower, we need brainpower. They want schools, health facilities, but not necessarily more physical troops."

Following the arrival next year of 30,000 additional American troops, the US military force in Afghanistan will be about 100,000. That doesn't include the more than 100,000 American civilians in Afghanistan—contractors, workers, and security people, for example.

What evidence is there for or against support among the Afghan people for the presence of US troops in Afghanistan?

Al Qaeda and Taliban threats

New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg asked: "Does it make spend lives and treasure trying to eradicate 'safe havens' in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda has so many other—well, options, from Sudan to Hamburg?"(New Yorker, 11/30/09)

Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote, "Obama maintains that the 'Taliban' have in recent years made common cause with 'Al Qaeda' in seeking to overturn the Karzai government, [but] there are no Al Qaeda operatives to speak of in Afghanistan. That does not sound like much of a common cause." (, 12/2/09)

General James Jones, the president's National Security Advisor, said the number of Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan are "fewer than a hundred" in an October 2009 interview with CNN.

What evidence is there of a Taliban-Al Qaeda "common cause"?"

Why, as the president said, is "our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" when the combined Al Qaeda forces amount to some 400 militants?

What are the sources of funding for the Taliban?

What evidence is there that a Taliban takeover of the Afghan government, however undesirable, would be a threat to the security of the United States?

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

"A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region — all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war. A withdrawal date only emboldens Al Qaeda and the Taliban," Senator John McCain (Arizona Republican) told fellow Republican lawmakers. (12/1/09)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the president's troop withdrawal deadline of July 2011 was flexible and depended upon circumstances. The president's press secretary Robert Gibbs said there was no such flexibility. In his speech the president was very firm about "the time frame for transition" to Afghan responsibility.

Is there inconsistency within the Obama administration about when US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan? If so, why?


The "safe haven" for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan

According to most reports, about 300 Al Qaeda militants are in Pakistan's western areas, but no precise numbers are available. While Osama bin Laden and other leaders are also presumed to be there, nobody knows for certain.

The president did not discuss how the US intends to get the Pakistan government to eliminate the safe haven for militants in its western areas or what the US proposes to do about that situation. Officials say that US pilotless planes (drones), with the tacit support of the Pakistan government, have been successful in killing a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda members—along with civilians. There is overwhelming opposition among Pakistanis to these attacks. Last summer a Gallup poll of Pakistanis found that 9 percent of Pakistan were favor of the attacks and 67 percent were against. Pakistanis ranked the US as a greater threat to Pakistan than either rival India or the Pakistani Taliban. (Scott Shane, "CIA Expanding Drone Assaults Inside Pakistan," New York Times, 12/4/09)

There are at least two other serious, relevant issues regarding Pakistan that the president did not discuss: its simmering conflict with India over control of the northern area of Kashmir, and India's growing influence and financial aid to Afghanistan. Pakistani intelligence played a major role in creating the Afghan Taliban and supported its successful effort to take control of Afghanistan 15 years ago as a counter to India. This history explains why Pakistani leaders are reluctant to move against Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. While Pakistan has recently had some success in killing and driving militants from its western areas, its main effort has been against the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan Taliban, as the president seemed to suggest. The Pakistani Taliban has been responsible for frequent suicide bombing attacks in Pakistan in an effort to destabilize and overthrow the Pakistan government.

The US government has approved a promise of $7.5 billion for Pakistan's civilian needs over the next five years.

Why do you suppose that the president did not discuss these issues?

What do official reports say about the success of the drone attacks? What criticisms have been made of them? Why?

Why is there such widespread Pakistani opposition to these attacks?

What role did the Pakistani intelligence service play in the creation of the Afghan Taliban and why? What evidence is there that this connection continues?

What role did the US play in the creation of the Afghan Taliban and why?

What are the origins of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan? How and why does this conflict affect the Pakistan government's willingness to act against Taliban safe havens inside Pakistan?

What has been the Pakistani response to the US promise of $7.5 billion in civilian aid and why?

If Al Qaeda is successful in destabilizing or overturning the nuclear-armed Pakistan government, what threat would that pose? What, if anything, is the US doing to prevent this?

The cost of 30,000 additional US troops

The military rule of thumb for the cost of each soldier in Afghanistan is $1 million per year: 30,000 x $1,000,000,000=$30,000,000,000. The roughly 68,000 already in Afghanistan = $68,000,000,000. In short, the yearly cost to Americans of maintaining 98,000,000 troops in Afghanistan will be close to $100 billion.

How will the US pay for the Afghanistan war? What choices do the president and Congress have to meet these costs? How have they been meeting them for the past eight years? Why?

Support from allies

There are more than 20 nations that add 38,000 non-U.S. troops to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. They will increase that number by about 7,000 in response to the president's announcement of a US increase. The result will be that by sometime in 2010 close to 150,000 NATO troops and well over 100,000 civilian contractors, construction crews, and civilian security forces will be in Afghanistan.

Argues Mark Landler in the New York Times: "But in Europe as in Washington, arithmetic on troops can get fuzzy. Of the 7,000 troops promised by NATO, 1,500 are already in Afghanistan, sent months ago bolster security during the presidential election. An undisclosed number of the new troops will steer clear of the fighting because they are barred by their countries from combat operations." (Mark Landler, "NATO Pledges 7, Troops for Afghanistan, but Details are Few and Questions Are Many," New York Times, 12/5/09)

What portion of the NATO troops engage in combat? Where and with what success? What do the other NATO troops do and with what success?

The US role in the world

President Obama said Americans "have not sought world domination" and "will not claim another nation's resources."

Why does the US spend on its military more than all other countries combined and occupy more than 700 bases worldwide in more than 100 countries? What are we seeking? What is your evidence?






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