A 'war of necessity?'


By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher:

Support 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.

The 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.

For 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 See also student readings on "Afghanistan: The Return of the Taliban & Heroin."

Student Reading 1:
"A war of necessity"?

"The 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."

What 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….And at 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 seek."

A new assessment

Within 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 longer possible….Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood."

McChrystal 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 still achievable."

But 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."

The war's origins and the Pakistan connection

After 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.

President 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.

The 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, (, 9/18/09)

Some basic facts about the Afghanistan war:

  • Number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 2002: 5,200
  • Number of expected U.S. troops in Afghanistan by end of 2009: 68,000
  • Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2001: 12
  • Number of NATO and American deaths this year through mid-September: more than
    350, making 2009 the deadliest year since war began in 2001
  • Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan since the war began: 841
  • Estimated 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)
  • U.S. funding for Afghan war, 2002: $20.8 billion
  • U.S. funding for Afghan war, 2009: $60.2 billion
  • Total U.S. funding for Afghan war, 2002-2009: $228.2 billion
  • Requested 2010 funding by Obama administration for Afghan war: $68 billion
  • Estimated number of Al Qaeda base camps in Afghanistan: 0

(Tom Englehardt, "Measuring Success in Afghanistan," updated,, 9/8/09)

Afghanistan's many problems

Afghanistan 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 (, 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.)

For discussion

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

2. What fundamental reason does President Obama give for calling the Afghanistan war "a war of necessity"?

3. 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?

4. Why does General McChrystal regard the situation in Afghanistan as "serious"?

5. If Al Qaeda has no base camps in Afghanistan, why does the war continue?

Student Reading 2:
"A war of choice"?

Growing opposition to the war

In 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 (,) Support for the war among the NATO allies is also sinking. Two-thirds of Germans, for example, oppose the war.

President 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.

Ann 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 wishes….Why should they?" ("Meet the Afghan Army,", 9/20/09)

"Mr. Obama's war of choice"

Richard 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."

It 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.

But 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.

Haas concludes: "Afghanistan is thus a war of choice--Mr. Obama's war of choice….If 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)

The Pashtun factor

The 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."

In 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)

Challenging assumptions

"Afghanistan 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."

Pillar 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…. Operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home…. Consider: 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."

Pillar 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."

Today, 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."
(, 9/16)

Our "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 (, 9/25/09)

For discussion

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

2. 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?

3. What does Jones mean by her reference to "our Afghans"? Why doesn't she think they will fight "with the energy of the Taliban"?

4. Why did Haas call the Afghanistan war "a war of choice"?

5. Why is it hard for a powerful U.S. force in Afghanistan to "clear Taliban territory and hold it"?

6. 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?

7. According to Stewart, what is the real problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan?

8. What conclusions do you draw about the Afghanistan war? Is it a war of necessity? A war of choice? Something else? Why?

For inquiry and citizenship

Have 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:

  • the 1979 U.S. decision to support an Afghan insurgency against the Soviet invasion
  • Osama bin Laden and the origins of Al Qaeda
  • the Afghanistan civil war during the first half of the 1990s
  • Pakistan's efforts to create the Taliban
  • Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir
  • Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s
  • the failure of the U.S. to capture or kill Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders after 9/11
  • the Pashtuns
  • the corruption of the Afghanistan government
  • poppy cultivation and its role in the war

Begin 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 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 Plagiarism Perplex."

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:

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