The Afghanistan war: A simple explanation

A U.S. Marine patrols in southern Afghanistan with Afghan army members.
A U.S. Marine patrols in southern Afghanistan with Afghan army members.

If you aren't a foreign policy wonk, the latest developments from the war on Afghanistan — questions about more troops, election shenanigans and a resurgent Taliban — can be downright confusing. Heck, we've been confused ourselves, and we've been immersed in information as we reported on President Barack Obama's campaign promises on Afghanistan .

Here, we take step back from the breaking news to provide you with a bird's eye view of what's driving the current discussion.

A quick review of recent history

Afghanistan lies between Saudi Arabia and India, and it's directly bordered to the west by Iran, to the east by Pakistan, and to the north by former Soviet republics. It also shares a small border with China. ( View map .) In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up a communist government. The war dragged on for 10 years, with the United States supporting the Islamic insurgents who resisted the Soviets (recently popularized by the movie Charlie Wilson's War ). By the 1990s, the Soviets had left, the Americans had lost interest and parts of the country were lawless and chaotic.

Enter the Taliban. Roughly translated, the word means "student," and members of the Taliban came together out of strict Islamic schools. They countered Afghanistan's warlords and imposed order, but they also banned music and forced women to wear head-to-toe coverings. The United States initially supported the Taliban but became wary after news reports about the repression of women and other human rights violations. In 1996, the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul — roughly, the same time Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan after being ousted from Sudan. Bin Laden's group, al-Qaida, set up training camps in Afghanistan, and al-Qaida planned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there.

After the terrorist attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan, removed the Taliban and chased bin Laden into the mountainous region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bin Laden disappeared, and the United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan ever since.

The Iraq war and the election of Barack Obama

In March 2003, the United States launched a war against Iraq, ostensibly to find weapons of mass destruction held by dictator Saddam Hussein. No weapons were found, but the effort diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan. Polls now show solid majorities of the American public say the Iraq war was a mistake. When Obama campaigned for president in 2008, he said that President George W. Bush had taken "his eye off the ball" by invading Iraq.

The real enemies, Obama said, were hiding in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama pledged to take several actions: send two additional brigades to Afghanistan to maintain order, encourage NATO allies to send more forces, and train the Afghan military to take over security. He also said he would increase aid to Pakistan, but make the aid conditional on that country's efforts to fight terrorism.

Obama said he knew the task in Afghanistan would not be easy. "There are tribes (there) that see borders as nothing more than lines on a map, and governments as forces that come and go," Obama said in a 2007 speech. "There are blood ties deeper than alliances of convenience, and pockets of extremism that follow religion to violence. It's a tough place. But that is no excuse. ... We cannot fail to act because action is hard."

Two months after he took office, Obama ordered the additional brigades to Afghanistan, and we rated it as Promise Kept . Obama also replaced Gen. David McKiernan, the top military officer in Afghanistan, with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

How many troops are enough?

Lately, the central debate on Afghanistan has been about the number of U.S. troops. McChrystal reportedly has asked for 40,000 more troops, in addition to the roughly 68,000 already in place, in order to fight insurgents, many affiliated with the Taliban. His request became public when an assessment McChrystal wrote was leaked to the Washington Post . McChrystal then gave a speech in London and appeared on 60 Minutes , in which he discussed how more troops would help execute his overall strategy.

The publicity didn't sit well with the higher-ups on Obama's national security team. Soon afterward, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the president's advisers, both military and civilian, should give their advice "candidly but privately."

We reviewed the leaked report, as well as McChrystal's public comments. His points are more nuanced — and interesting — than simply "more troops."

• McChrystal said actions in Afghanistan tend to have unintended consequences, so the United States should proceed with caution. "If you build a well in the wrong place in a village, you may have shifted the basis of power in that village," McChrystal said in his London speech. "Therefore, with a completely altruistic aim of building a well, you can create divisiveness or give the impression that you, from the outside, do not understand what is going on, or that you have sided with one element or another."

Similarly, he said, suppose there are 10 insurgents, and allied forces killed two. "How many insurgents are left?" he asked. "Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.’ There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter — you killed them." ( Read his prepared remarks .)

• At the same time, McChrystal disputed the notion that Afghanistan is "a graveyard of empires." Most Afghans do not want a return of the Taliban, he said. They want self-government for their country, and that's a big factor in favor of the United States, he said.

• To counter insurgents, McChrystal emphasized the need to protect the safety of the Afghan people, which should take precedence over troop safety. McChrystal specifically criticized the international coalition on this point. "Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we need to protect," he wrote. The military should promote responsible and accountable government in Afghanistan, he said. ( Read the full report .)

A government for Afghanistan

The question of Afghanistan's government took on new urgency recently, when the country held elections. President Hamid Karzai had led Afghanistan with the support of the Bush administration since the United States removed the Taliban in 2001, but recently he's been accused of corruption and incompetence. When Karzai won the election in August, there were widespread allegations of voter fraud. The United Nations has been investigating, but several U.N. representatives have been fired or resigned in protest over how the investigation is being handled.

The Karzai government's poor reputation has fueled those who say the United States should not send more troops to Afghanistan. A counterinsurgency strategy will never work if the Afghanistan government is inept, according to this argument.

Vice President Joe Biden is reportedly one of the leading advocates of a more limited strategy, but Obama's advisers have not been nearly as public in presenting their arguments as McChrystal has been. Many reports we've reviewed are based on anonymous sources, but a former Biden adviser recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about growing disillusionment with Karzai.

"How can the United States continue to invest large amounts of blood and treasure where we have no partner and when we have no faith in Karzai's ability to build up indigenous military capacity or even a functioning police force?" asked Norman Kurz, the former Biden adviser . "It's hard to quibble with the logic that it is better to focus U.S. efforts on the narrower goal of killing enough Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan so that their ability to influence affairs in both countries is limited."

A highly debated question is whether the Taliban is a lesser threat than al-Qaida, and whether some members of the Taliban could be tolerated or rehabilitated to play a positive role in Afghanistan.

Another important element to Afghanistan: the country's proximity to Pakistan and India. Pakistan and India are rivals and nuclear powers, and it's widely supposed that some members of Pakistan's intelligence services support al-Qaida and the Taliban as a force to destabilize India. Keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons away from al-Qaida is one of the United State's most important goals.

What we don't know

Finally, we'll conclude with a tip sheet for important questions we're monitoring.

• Will Obama decide to send more troops or not? Obama has been holding a series of meetings on Afghanistan. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that announcements on any new decisions are still several weeks away.

• If Obama doesn't send more troops, will the situation in Afghanistan worsen? And if he does send more troops, will they succeed in ending violence? McChrystal said that more troops won't help if the Afghan government is incompetent or the Afghan security forces are unable to eventually take over security.

• What will happen to al-Qaida and the Taliban? The United States continues to take out al-Qaida operatives using airstrikes in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the Taliban seems to be a persistent part of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Will the United States treat al-Qaida and the Taliban more as separate organizations and will that make any difference in developments in Afghanistan?

•  Will Karzai win the election or will new elections be called? It seems like there are new developments on this daily. Whether Karzai stays or goes, it's clear that the future government of Afghanistan will play a crucial role in whatever happens, for good or ill.