What will President Obama do about AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN?

An opening exercise is followed by student readings on Afghanistan's "downward spiral" and Pakistan's involvement; limitations of an American military solution; and elements of a regional approach.

The intertwined problems posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan represent a major foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration. Below is an opening exercise to get students thinking about this issue. It is followed by a student reading that provides an overview of why American intelligence agencies regard Afghanistan as in a "downward spiral" and how Pakistan is involved. The second reading offers evidence that an American military solution, by itself, may not resolve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The third reading outlines the elements of a regional approach as proposed by two scholars.

The teacher may also find useful "Afghanistan: The Return of the Taliban and Heroin" and "Pakistan: Unstable U.S. Ally."


Opening exercise:

Afghanistan Web

Create a web chart with students, an exercise that can promote student interest, reveal misunderstandings, and generate questions. Begin by writing and circling the word "Afghanistan" in the middle of the chalkboard. What comes into students' minds when they hear or read this word? There are no wrong answers. Write down key words and draw a line between them and "Afghanistan."

When responses flag, ask for corrections of any misstatements of fact or correct them yourself. Then invite questions and write them on the chalkboard separately from the chart. How might they be answered? What sources of information can students suggest? Consider the use of student questions for later discussion and possible student inquiry.

Tell the class that the situation in Afghanistan is one of the major problems facing President Obama. The student reading below provides some insight into this situation and its connection with neighboring Pakistan.


Student Reading 1

"We don't see progress"

When Barack Obama takes office as president on January 20, 2009, he will face the serious intertwined problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In October 2008, a draft report by American intelligence agencies concluded that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral." Major reasons:

  • Corruption within the American-supported government of Hamid Karzai
  • Increasingly sophisticated attacks by Taliban forces from their havens in Pakistan's northwest mountains, enabling them to seize and hold sections of southern Afghanistan
  • Flourishing poppy fields that fuel the heroin trade and fill the coffers of the Taliban by an estimated $100 million a year

The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, said in early October, "In large parts of Afghanistan, we don't see progress. We're into a very tough counterinsurgency fight and will be for some time." NATO allies can be even grimmer. "The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust," said the British ambassador to Afghanistan. ( New York Times, 10/8/08 and 10/10/08).

During his election campaign, Obama said repeatedly that the Bush administration had mistakenly shifted its attention and American military resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had nothing to do with terrorists and Al Qaeda, the group that engineered 9/11. But Afghanistan's leaders at the time, the Taliban, did. They gave Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants freedom to create Al Qaeda and after 9/11 refused to surrender him to the U.S. An American invasion of Afghanistan, with NATO support, followed.

Almost immediately the U.S.-led force was able to overthrow the Taliban government. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces fled, many into Pakistan's northwest mountains. The U.S. did not capture bin Laden and his lieutenants or Taliban leaders. Seven years later, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are back in Afghanistan with support from allies still in Pakistan. A new group of insurgents, the Pakistani Taliban, has been created.

U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan have killed many of these insurgents, but they have also outraged Afghans by repeatedly killing civilians — on several occasions at large wedding parties.

Afghanistan has been at war almost continuously for 30 years. During the 1980s Afghans were fighting troops from the Soviet Union, which had occupied their country. The Afghans eventually drove the Soviet occupiers out. Since then, Afghanistan has been rife with internal struggles, one of which brought the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s.

The neighboring country of Pakistan has also suffered one crisis after another. It has little or no control over its northwest "tribal areas," despite off-and-on military efforts to obtain it. Although this mountainous region is nominally under the control of the Pakistani government, it is in fact largely autonomous and controlled by traditional Pashtun tribal leaders. The region is a center of Taliban activity.

Pakistan's intelligence agency supported the creation of the Taliban and has been accused, with reason, of supporting Taliban rule in Afghanistan as part of an effort to keep that country from falling under the control of India, Pakistan's enemy for more than a half century. Pakistan and India have fought three wars over the northern region of Kashmir in a dispute that is still unsettled. Both nations have nuclear weapons.

Since 9/11 the U.S. has given the Pakistan government billions of dollars. Most of this money has gone to Pakistan's military to fuel attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda bases and forces in the northwest frontier region. The results have been meager.

For discussion

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

2. Why were American troops sent to Afghanistan seven years ago? Why did the American focus on Afghanistan shift to Iraq?

3. Why does American intelligence think Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral"?

4. Why are the Taliban able to attack from Pakistan?

Student Reading 2:

Obama's approach to Afghanistan/Pakistan and his critics

Obama emphasized during his campaign that he would increase troop levels in Afghanistan. He also said that if he received actionable intelligence about Al Qaeda in Pakistan, he would order cross-border military action against it. The Bush administration has already launched at least one cross-border assault on Taliban forces and at least 18 drone plane bombings of Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. These attacks inevitably and frequently also kill civilians and infuriate Pakistanis.

But the situation is complicated. Though a U.S. ally, Pakistan is a nation of many factions. The government cannot appear to be slavish to the U.S. by permitting American attacks on its soil.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry told the American ambassador the strikes were "a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and should be stopped immediately." A ministry spokesman added: "The drone attacks have negative repercussions when the Pakistani government tries to get the support of the people in the tribal area. They are not helping meet the objectives of the war on terror."

U.S. commanders want troop increases. But, again, there are complications As Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska) said and commanders agree, "there is no military solution, so we have to be very careful that somehow we don't just ricochet out of Iraq into Afghanistan, with another hundred-and-fifty-thousand-troop buildup." (Connie Bruck, "Odd Man Out," The New Yorker, 11/3/08)

It is not "at all clear that sending more U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan can resolve the problem of the Taliban there," wrote Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "American and NATO search-and-destroy missions alienate the local population and fuel, rather than quench, the insurgency. Resentment over U.S. air strikes on innocent civilians...is growing....To be sure, Obama advocates combining counterinsurgency military operations with development aid and attention to resolving the problem of poppy cultivation....Stepped-up military action, however, is still the central component of his plan." (www.salon.com, 7/23/08)

"The general rule in this kind of war is that the more foreign troops are sent into a country like Afghanistan, the more Afghan and Pakistani nationalist outrage and fury is generated, and the more support there is for the Taliban, against the foreigners," wrote William Pfaff, author of eight books on American diplomacy. "Someone needs to explain to Barack Obama that this terrible entanglement of conflicts has nothing seriously to do with the basic national interests of the United States, which has never been harmed by the Taliban, and whose fundamental interests have nothing to do with who rules the traditionally unconquerable mountain territories in central Asia."
(www.williampfaff.com, 10/7/08, source no longer active)

For discussion

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

2. Why have there been American attacks in Pakistan's territory? Since Pakistan is an American ally, why does its government protest such attacks?

3. Will more American troops, alone, solve the problem of Afghanistan? Why or why not?

4. Do you agree with Pfaff that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have "nothing seriously to do with the basic national interests of the United States"? Why or why not? If you agree, should the U.S. remove all troops? Why? If you don't agree, why not?


Student Reading 3:

A regional solution?

In Foreign Affairs magazine (November/December 2008), Barnet Rubin and Ahmed Rashid provide a detailed discussion of "ending chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Rubin is director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and the author of books about Afghanistan and. Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and author of books about Pakistan.

They write: "U.S. diplomacy has been paralyzed by the rhetoric of 'the war on terror'—a struggle against 'evil'" whose view is that you are either "with us or with the terrorists." They support an increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan and efforts to build the Afghan army and to develop an effective Afghan police force. But they see the need for much more.

That includes the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the creation of jobs, good government, effective efforts to sharply reduce the poppy crop while offering support for other agricultural crops, and creating effective police and justice systems. Accomplishing these goals will take years of peace, which is yet another complication.

Rubin and Rashid call for a major U.S. "political and diplomatic initiative that distinguishes political opponents of the United States—including violent ones—[the Taliban] from global terrorists such as Al Qaeda." It would include:

1) A "political solution with as much of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies as possible." Pakistan's indirectly ruled mountainous tribal areas would be included in the country's mainstream institutions.

2) "An end to hostile action by international troops in return for cooperation against Al Qaeda."

3) "A major diplomatic and development initiative" in the region to address other issues prolonging the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These issues include:

  • the long-standing Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India
  • the possible integration of the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan into that country's provinces
  • settlement of Afghanistan-Pakistan border issues
  • involvement of Pakistan's neighbors-Iran and China-as well as a near-neighbor Russia—in such settlements and attention to their interests.

In short, a regional approach, which was recommended also by Senator Hagel.

According to a story in the Washington Post headlined "Obama to Explore New Approach in Afghanistan War," (www.washingtonpost.com, 11/11/08): "The incoming Obama administration plans to explore a more regional strategy to the war in Afghanistan—including possible talks with Iran—and looks favorably on...dialogue between the Afghan government and 'reconcilable'
elements of the Taliban, according to Obama national security advisors."

General David Petraeus, commander at Central Command of all U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, supports this approach: We need to look "not just at Afghanistan, but also of course Pakistan, at the Stans (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan), Iran and even some of the other countries in the great region...such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and some of he gulf States, and even leaders in Lebanon."

The Afghan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabian governments have begun an attempt to open a dialogue with Taliban spokesmen to test possible divisions among Taliban forces and a split with Al Qaeda. One of the Taliban spokesmen said, "Al Qaeda has an international agenda and Taliban have their own agenda, which is Afghanistan." (Carlotta Gall, "Afghanistan Tests Waters for Overture to Taliban," New York Times ,10/30/08) But Mullah Sabir, a high-ranking Taliban commander, said, "This is not a political campaign for policy change or power sharing or cabinet ministries. We are waging jihad to bring Islamic law back to Afghanistan."

After quoting Mullah Sabir, two Newsweek reporters went on to write that the Taliban has always been a loose mix of regional and tribal groups. "Individual commanders have enormous autonomy in their home areas; some continue to enforce the medieval dictates of Mullah Omar's defunct regime," which was forced to flee from American troops in 2001. "But others tolerate music, Qur'an classes for girls, even televisions. In hard-line Helmand province, barbers are allowed to trim beards." (11/10/08)

For discussion

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

2. What do Rubin and Rashid view as wrong with the "rhetoric of 'the war on terror'"?

3. What do they mean by "a regional approach" to the Afghanistan and Pakistan problems? Why do you suppose they think nearby nations need to be involved in any solutions?

4. What problems can you foresee in any approach to the Taliban for peace talks?

5. During the years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, hard-line religious laws were enforced strictly. Why do you suppose they did not tolerate music? Qur'an classes for girls? Barbers trimming beards? If you don't know, how might you find out?



Unanswered student questions about Afghanistan and Pakistan are one source for independent and small group inquiries. Another might be one of the subjects listed below.

Before students begin an investigation, have them frame one or two questions to guide their inquiry. These should be discussed with the teacher before they proceed. In this connection, the teacher may find useful in the high school section of TeachableMoment, "Thinking Is Questioning," which provides specific approaches to helping students to formulate and analyze questions.

  • The Taliban
  • The poppy, Afghanistan's main agricultural crop
  • Corruption in the Karzai government
  • Air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that kill civilians
  • The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan
  • American participation in the Afghan guerrilla movement that drove the Soviets out
  • The "war on terror"
  • The Pakistan-India conflict over Kashmir
  • Pakistan's tribal areas
  • A regional solution to the Afghanistan and Pakistan problems


Follow-up discussions

Have follow-up discussions with students on major issues facing the Obama administration, including Afghanistan/Pakistan and the financial and economic crisis. (A discussion of the latter is included in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org.) Students, individually or in small groups, might be assigned to track Obama administration actions in each of these areas and to report on them regularly.

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