A 'war of necessity?'
To the Teacher:
for the war in Afghanistan is weakening, not just among Americans but also among
people in the other countries that are part of the NATO force in Afghanistan.
Critics of the war complain about President Obama's lack of clarity about what
the U.S. aims to accomplish in Afghanistan. They point to grim reports from the
news media and military leaders about the situation there, including mounting
American and NATO casualties.
first student reading below includes a recent statement by the president on why
the war is necessary, a recent military assessment of the situation in, and some
basic information about the war's human and financial costs. The second reading
provides critiques of the U.S. role in Afghanistan from multiple perspectives.
further background information on the war and the Pakistan-Taliban connection,
see "Obama's Strategy in Afghanistan &
Pakistan" and an associated DBQ in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org.
See also student readings on "Afghanistan:
The Return of the Taliban & Heroin."
"A war of necessity"?
insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight and we won't defeat it
overnight," said President Obama at an August 17, 2009, convention of the
Veterans of Foreign War. "This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never
forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity."
makes the Afghanistan conflict "a war of necessity"? The president's
answer: "Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.
If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven
from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war
worth fighting. [It] is fundamental to the defense of our people
every step of the way, we will assess our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist
allies, and to help the Afghan and Pakistani people build the future that they
weeks of Obama's statement, the president and his national security advisors had
undertaken a new assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. In an August 30 report
to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, portions of which have become public, the top
American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, painted a gloomy
picture: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in
the [next 12 months]
risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no
.Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs
are complex and poorly understood."
said that the U.S.-NATO alliance "does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics
in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials,
power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population
But, he added, "While the situation in Afghanistan is serious, success is
what does "success" mean, in this context? President Obama put it this
way, on September 20: "Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first
on a strategy to keep us safe, then we'll figure out how to resource it."
war's origins and the Pakistan connection
the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., President
Bush demanded that the Taliban government in Afghanistan turn over those responsible--Osama
bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders who had found a haven there. The Taliban
refused. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. and its allies began the war with air strikes
in Afghanistan. Five weeks later the Taliban abandoned its capital, Kabul, and
retreated, along with Al Qaeda fighters, into the mountainous region just over
the border in Pakistan.
Bush and his administration then turned their attention to Iraq. Meanwhile, the
Taliban regrouped and got support in Pakistan, a U.S. ally. The Pakistani intelligence
service and army have viewed Taliban control of Afghanistan as important in preventing
Pakistan's enemy, India, from gaining influence there. Soon, Taliban forces were
back in Afghanistan. By the time of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, they
controlled most of southern Afghanistan,. They now dominate most of the east as
well, and have become a threat to the rest of the country.
Taliban's relationship with whatever remains of Al Qaeda and its leaders (who
are presumed to be in Pakistan) is unclear. Pakistan's government says it opposes
a Taliban haven in its country. But the American ambassador to Pakistan, Anne
Patterson, recently said that Pakistan is "certainly reluctant to take action"
against Taliban leaders like Mullah Mohammad Omar. Omar is thought to be directing
the Afghanistan insurgency from Pakistan's western city, Quetta, (www.mcclatchydc.com,
basic facts about the Afghanistan war:
of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 2002: 5,200
of expected U.S. troops in Afghanistan by end of 2009: 68,000
of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2001: 12
of NATO and American deaths this year through mid-September: more than
making 2009 the deadliest year since war began in 2001
of American troops killed in Afghanistan since the war began: 841
number of Afghan civilians killed in the war since 2001: 1,500 (more than half
these deaths are believe to have been caused by the Taliban, most of the rest
by unintended U.S. drone and other air strikes)
funding for Afghan war, 2002: $20.8 billion
funding for Afghan war, 2009: $60.2 billion
U.S. funding for Afghan war, 2002-2009: $228.2 billion
2010 funding by Obama administration for Afghan war: $68 billion
number of Al Qaeda base camps in Afghanistan: 0
Englehardt, "Measuring Success in Afghanistan," updated, www.tomdispatch.com,
is a country with many serious problems, including a weak, corrupt central government
that may not have legitimately won the last election. It controls only about 30%
of the country. Afghanistan's army is undisciplined and poorly trained, and most
of its soldiers are illiterate (www.juancole.com,
9/17/09). Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world. Afghani farmers
get most of their income from growing poppies for opium; they are the source of
more than 90% of the world's heroin. The nation's infrastructure is very poor,
with inadequate roads, power stations, and sewage systems. (Kabul, the capital,
does not have a sewage system.)
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
What fundamental reason does President Obama give for calling the Afghanistan
war "a war of necessity"?
What do you know about the Taliban? About any connection between the Taliban
and Al Qaeda? About its haven in Pakistan? Why has the Afghanistan war lasted
for eight years and still counting? If you know little and wanted to know more,
how would you find out?
Why does General McChrystal regard the situation in Afghanistan as "serious"?
If Al Qaeda has no base camps in Afghanistan, why does the war continue?
"A war of choice"?
opposition to the war
August, President Obama talked of "a war of necessity" in Afghanistan.
A month later, a CNN poll revealed that 58% of Americans oppose the war while
39% favor it. This is a 12% rise in opposition since April, according to CNN (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com,)
Support for the war among the NATO allies is also sinking. Two-thirds of Germans,
for example, oppose the war.
Obama still has substantial support for the war among Republicans in Congress,
but Democratic support is weakening. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan,
chairman of the Armed Services Committee, recently said he wanted the U.S. to
put more effort into training Afghan security forces before sending more of its
own troops to Afghanistan.
Jones has spent years in Afghanistan helping women there and writing about the
country. She has also visited Afghan army training camps. She says: "'Our'
Afghans are never going to fight for an American cause with or without American
troops, the way we imagine they should. They're never going to fight with the
energy of the Taliban for a national government that we installed against Afghan
.Why should they?" ("Meet the Afghan Army," www.tomdispatch.com,
Obama's war of choice"
Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that any "war
of necessity" has to meet two criteria. First, it must involve "vital
national interests." Second, there must be no viable alternative to using
force to protect those interests. In a New York Times opinion piece, Haas
wrote: "In the wake of 9/11, invading Afghanistan was a war of necessity.
The United States needed to act in self-defense to oust the Taliban."
did. And now, Haas asks, "Is our military presence still a necessity? Our
interests in Afghanistan include preventing Al Qaeda from operating in that country
and the Taliban from using Afghan territory to destabilize Pakistan," which
has nuclear weapons.
even if Afghanistan had a stable, strong government, terrorists might still operate
from there, Haas argues, and "Pakistan's future would remain uncertain at
best." Haas suggests alternative U.S. policies, including: cutting back on
American forces in Afghanistan, focusing drone attacks on terrorists, training
Afghan security forces, and strengthening the country's poor infrastructure--roads,
sanitation systems, electrical grids. "A more radical alternative,"
he writes, "would be to withdraw all United States military forces from Afghanistan"
and concentrate on "counterterrorism efforts and homeland security initiatives"
to protect ourselves from any threats coming from Afghanistan.
concludes: "Afghanistan is thus a war of choice--Mr. Obama's war of choice
Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort. It
is not and does not. (New York Times, 8/20/09)
U.S. military's strategy has been to "clear Taliban territory and hold it."
But this is extremely difficult: The Pashtun ethnic group, which is the majority
in southern Afghanistan, is now dominated by the Taliban. While only a minority
of Pashtuns support the Taliban, writes Middle East scholar Juan Cole, "Virtually
no Pashtuns, who are a plurality of the country and the largest single ethnic
group, want U.S. or NATO troops in their country."
interviews with "former intelligence officials and other experts," New
York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof found "that sending more American
troops into ethnic Pashtun areas in the Afghan south may only galvanize local
people to back the Taliban in repelling the infidels." ("The Afghanistan
Abyss," New York Times, 9/6/09)
must not be allowed to again become a haven for terrorist groups, especially Al
Qaeda." This is the chief rationale for the Afghanistan war, writes Paul
Pillar, formerly a deputy chief of the CIA counterterrorism center. Pillar then
poses two reasons to question this rationale: 1) "the top Al Qaeda leadership
is not even in Afghanistan, having decamped to Pakistan years ago" and 2)
"terrorists intent on establishing a haven can choose among several unstable
countries besides Afghanistan, and U.S. forces cannot secure them all."
then asks two questions in his Washington Post column (9/16/09): 1) "How
important to terrorist groups is any physical haven?" 2) "How much does
a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially
the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as
unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose
most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home
The preparations most important to the September 11, 2001, attacks took place
not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel
rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States."
finds the U.S.'s "inadequate examination of core assumptions" in both
the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars "most disturbing." In the 1960s, American
discourse "took for granted the key--and flawed--assumptions underlying the
whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would
fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam
would gravely harm U.S. credibility."
he argues, the Obama administration "can still avoid comparable error."
The U.S. must not assume that a terrorist haven in Afghanistan means repeating
the horror of 9/11, Pillar writes. He believes the U.S. has so far failed to present
a "convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the
terrorist danger to the United States."
"real target is probably a few hundred terrorists who have the capacity to
harm the United States," says Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart. "Our
real issue is not who wants to harm the United States [but] who can. And how do
we prevent those people who actually have that ability to do that?" Stewart,
a Harvard professor who walked 6,000 miles around Afghanistan in 2002, was interviewed
on PBS's Bill Moyers Journal (www.pbs.org/moyers/journal,
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
Why do you think so many Americans don't understand why the war in Afghanistan
continues? Why do they find the president's explanation inadequate?
What does Jones mean by her reference to "our Afghans"? Why doesn't
she think they will fight "with the energy of the Taliban"?
Why did Haas call the Afghanistan war "a war of choice"?
Why is it hard for a powerful U.S. force in Afghanistan to "clear Taliban
territory and hold it"?
According to Pillar, how are the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars similar? What
erroneous assumptions does the U.S. have about Afghanistan, in Pillar's opinion?
What does he think the Obama administration needs to explain and why?
According to Stewart, what is the real problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan?
What conclusions do you draw about the Afghanistan war? Is it a war of necessity?
A war of choice? Something else? Why?
inquiry and citizenship
students engage in an independent or small-group inquiry that will provide a larger
historical context for the war in Afghanistan. Ask students to research and report
back on a topic such as:
1979 U.S. decision to support an Afghan insurgency against the Soviet invasion
bin Laden and the origins of Al Qaeda
Afghanistan civil war during the first half of the 1990s
efforts to create the Taliban
conflict with India over Kashmir
rule in Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s
failure of the U.S. to capture or kill Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders after 9/11
corruption of the Afghanistan government
cultivation and its role in the war
by helping students frame a question or questions to guide an inquiry. Then meet
with students to discuss, possibly refine, and approve the questions. Since good
questions are crucial, see "Thinking Is Questioning"
in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org. Also in that section see
suggestions for school-wide citizenship activities in "Teaching
Social Responsibility." In the "Ideas and Essays" section of
this site, see "Teaching
on Controversial Issues" and "The
essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
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