Afghanistan: Its Conflicts and the War on Terrorism

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If you don’t wield a sword, what else will you do?

You, who have suckled at the breast of an Afghan mother!

What Pushtun women proverbially tell the men on their way to fight.
Stanford University

Political Science 218R

Afghanistan: Its Conflicts and the War on Terrorism
Abdulkader Sinno
Office hours @ Encina C221 on Thursdays 1-3 pm & by appointment

phone: 724-8055, email:

Class held in Room 160-329 on Wednesdays 3:15-6:05

Never did Afghanistan impress American consciousness more than after September 11, but even then, it did so only fleetingly. Once the Taliban were routed as a conventionally organized force, and even before American TV viewers sighed in relief at the end of al-Qaeda & Taliban’s final conventional stand in the mountains of Paktia, the US began preparing for the next stage of the “War on Terror”. Perhaps it is wise to enter new battlefields, geographic or otherwise, but Afghanistan is still very relevant to US interests, and our current approach might not be the best one. Recent escalation and developments in neighboring Pakistan even raise the specter of a long and bloody American engagement. This course will introduce you to past Afghan conflicts—their reasons, evolution and outcomes—and their significance for the ongoing confrontation between the US and its challengers in Afghanistan and adjacent states. We will also try to draw lessons from the past to assess the challenges facing state building and conflict resolution in Afghanistan. And we will explore the roots of the emergence of the al-Qaeda challenge during the years of the anti-Soviet jihad, and trace the organization’s development and evolution through the years.

While rich in historical content, this course will also introduce you to several approaches and models used to study conflict, conflict resolution and state building, and to new models of strategic interaction made urgently relevant by the more dramatic manifestations of the globalization of militancy.
Weekly Reading and Discussion Schedule


Part I: An introduction to Afghanistan. We begin the course by rapidly building our knowledge of Afghanistan, Afghan affairs and international interactions that involve the country.

January 8: Building a common vocabulary & familiarization with Afghan affairs. Course overview. Introduction to Afghan geography, demographics, resources, social structures, political institutions, cultures, and neighbors. We will briefly survey Afghan history to help us later place conflicts and attempts at state building in their proper context.
January 15: A survey of Afghan History and a discussion of what matters most. Political scientists both adopt perspectives and develop models to explain why events evolve the way they do. Unlike most historians who assume that each conflict is unique and journalists who report symptoms of conflicts, we look for patterns across conflicts, and develop models that account for them. In this part of the course, I will introduce you to some of the more popular models, theories and perspectives on conflict, competition, and conflict resolution. Keep them in mind when we later explore Afghan conflicts. Which factors exert the greatest influence on the development and evolution of complex group conflicts? Some advocate that states are the only significant actors in world politics, while others consider other types of organizations to be just as significant. On the domestic level, some emphasize the importance of class structure, ideology and culture, the existence of traditional social ties, control of resources, economic incentives, strategies, economic expectations, and institutions/organizations.

  • All of Ewans

January 22: Specific models to explain the evolution and outcomes of conflicts. What is a model? How do we know that a model has the power to explain or predict? How do we build social scientific models? Examples of rational choice, game theoretical and organizational models of conflict and cooperation: information cascades, tipping games, bank runs, prisoners’ dilemma, OTGC.

  • Goodson, Afghanistan’s Endless War, chapters 1-2

  • Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, excerpts (optional)

  • Barth, Fredrik, “Cultural wellsprings of Resistance in Afghanistan,” in Rosanne Klass, ed., Afghanistan: the Great Game Revisited, Freedom House, 1990.


Foreign involvement in Afghanistan. Afghans have shown during their long history little tolerance for foreign presence on their soil. That those who decided to invade were the superpowers of the day mattered little to the proud Afghans. The British launched two campaigns that failed miserably, and the Soviets executed a humiliating withdrawal after ten years of occupation. We will use different theoretical perspectives to explain the consistent failure of overwhelmingly powerful occupiers to subdue Afghan resistance and impose loyal regimes, and ask the question: will it be different this time?

January 29: The Soviet occupation and withdrawal (1979-89)

  • Sinno, Chapters 5-6 (website)

  • Rubin, chapters 5-10

  • Rubin, Barnett. The Search for Peace in Afghanistan. New Haven: Yale UP, chapters 3-6

  • Mendelson, “Internal battles and external wars,” World Politics 45 (1993), 327-60.

  • Cordovez & Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal, Overview and Chapters 10-12

  • Optional: Allan, Pierre & Albert Stahel. “Tribal guerilla warfare against a colonial power,” JCR 27, 4 (1983): 590-617.

February 5: War by proxy (1989-96)

  • Sinno, Chapter 7 (website)

  • Harpviken, Kristian Berg. “Transcending traditionalism,” Journal of Peace Research 34, 3 (1997): 271-87

  • Rubin, chapters 11-12

  • Ewans, chapter 17

  • Rubin, Barnett, “Women & pipelines,” International Affairs 73, 2 (1997), 283-96.

Attempts at state building in Afghanistan. We will study the experiences of a number of Afghan rulers to understand the extent and limitations of government in Afghanistan. We will try to identify strategies that worked, and others that failed to extend Kabul’s writ to the provinces. We will also attempt to explain, by using different models and perspectives, why the state in Afghanistan was historically weak, except when it rode on the back of episodic tribal outbursts. It is likely that the same factors that limited the powers of Afghan kings and other rulers will restrict the expansion of the influence of the current Karzai regime beyond Kabul.
February 12: Kings, puppets, the state, and local autonomy. Abdul Rahman, Shah Shuja, Amanullah, Habibullah (Basha-i Saqao), Zahir Shah, Daoud, the PDPA in 1979, Watan in 1989-92.

  • Shahrani, Nazif. “War, factionalism, and the state in Afghanistan,” American Anthropologist 104, 3 (2002): 715-22.

  • Ewans, review chapters 2-3, 5, 7-14

  • Dupree, Afghanistan, pp. 417-558 (Optional)

  • Rubin, chapters 2-4

  • Nawid, Senzil. Religious Response to Social Change in Afghanistan. Costa Mesa, Cal.: Mazda, 1999. Introduction and 1-41.

February 19: Governing through tribal outbursts. We will look at instances where leadership was created or reinforced by the occasional unity of the normally acephalous Pushtun social structure. The Taliban’s dramatic rise shared some of the characteristics of tribal outbursts, but explaining this complex and puzzling phenomenon requires an involved study. We will explore the different explanations for the meteoric rise of the Taliban, and the reasons behind their near-unification of the country before their demise as a conventional force following US intervention.

  • Ewans, chapters 18-20

  • Maley, Fundamentalism reborn?, pp 1-71

  • Rashid, chapters 1-7, 9.

Transnational dimensions of Afghan conflicts. Afghan organizations and states with interests in Afghanistan were not the only participants in Afghan conflicts. NGOs of all sorts and transnational militant organizations—some of which, like the al-Qaeda, were created in Afghanistan but consisted of mostly non-Afghan members—influenced the development and outcomes of Afghan conflicts. Al-Qaeda distinguished itself from other transnational supporters of Afghan factions by targeting US interests anywhere it could find a suitable opening. Except for its long experience fighting drug traffickers, the US never had to face such a nimble organization on a global scale, and across the borders of many states. This new type of conflict invites the creation of new analytical models to explain its dynamics and predict its outcome. Such models also have policy consequences and imply specific strategies and modes of organization. They are also important beyond the immediate battle between the US and al-Qaeda, because the same socioeconomic and technological changes that allowed al-Qaeda to pursue its agenda could allow similar organizations to do the same. I will introduce you to emerging models for the analysis of transnational conflicts, and encourage you to think of new ones.

February 26: The Afghan Arabs (and other non-Afghans) and the “War on Terror”. How did the flow of non-Afghan Islamists to Afghanistan begin? How did they organize? What was their impact? What was their motivation? How did their roles, organizations and strategies evolve? What was their impact within and beyond Afghanistan? What is the strategy of al-Qaeda? Why does it resort to terrorism? How does it execute its operations? What organizational pattern did it adopt? How do US and allied institutions perform in their effort to destroy al-Qaeda? Why did the US government fail to preempt 9/11, and did the subsequent institutional changes increase US ability to prevent further attacks? What did US operations around the globe really achieve? How do we measure the successes of the US and al-Qaeda?

  • Rashid, chapters 10, 14-15

  • Text of Sinno’s talk: “Force won’t suffice: The Bush administration’s errant strategy towards al-Qaeda’s challenge”

  • Fouad Ajami Iraq and the Arabs' Future

  • Ewans, chapters 20-21

  • Ajai Shukla, Road to Kabul

  • Julie Sirrs, Has the War been Won?

  • Stephen Biddle Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare

  • Julian Manyon: Julian Manyon searches Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden and finds seething Islamic rancour

  • Article on civil rights

  • Silbersteen, War of Words, 1-17.

March 5: The future of Afghanistan. What options are available for the US in Afghanistan? Will the US be able to achieve the daunting task of creating a self-sustaining regime in Kabul that could project its power beyond the larger cities? Will Afghans ultimately treat the Western presence as an occupation and Karzai as its puppet? What do the different theoretical approaches and models of conflict tell us about those issues? Will the US be able to dismantle the al-Qaeda network? What does it need to do to increase its odds for success? What does al-Qaeda need to do to impede US chances for success?

  • Johnson, Maley, Thier and Wardak: “Afghanistan’s Political and Constitutional Development”

  • ICG Report: The Afghan Transitional Administration: Prospects and Perils

  • Ottaway, M. and A. Lieven (2002) Rebuilding Afghanistan:Fantasy Versus Reality. Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  • Ali Jalali, Rebuilding Afghanistan's National Army (Parameters)

  • Browse through the compilation of articles in the last section of

  • Sedra, M. (2002) Challenging the Warlord Culture: Security Sector Reform in Post-Taliban Afghanistan.

  • Wimmer, A. and C. Schetter (2002) State Building First:Recommendations for Reconstruction and Peace-Making in Afghanistan. Bonn: Center for Development Research, University of Bonn.

  • Rashid, chapter 16 & Ewans, Chapter 22

  • Chesterman: tiptoeing through Afghanistan

  • Harpviken et al, Peace-building strategies for Afghanistan

  • Krakowski, Elie: How to Win the Peace in Afghanistan; America needs to stay the course

March 12: TEAM PAPERS DUE AT 3:15 pm

PRESENTATION OF GROUP PROJECTS: Each group has 20 minutes to present results and 5-10 minutes for Q & A.

Requirements & Logistics

You must read assigned texts for the entire week before you attend your discussion session. A large component of your grade is based on your contribution to the discussion of the readings.

It is important that you regularly visit the course website because:

  • I will post readings for you to download almost every week, particularly that relevant material are becoming regularly available

  • I will sometimes post on the class website a list of questions that will guide you through your readings

  • You will find a list of links to Internet resources on Afghanistan that might be useful

  • I posted glossaries of organizational and individual participants in modern Afghan conflicts, and of relevant terms.

There are three required books:

  • Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale paperback edition, 2001.

  • Rubin, Barnett. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. Paperback/2nd ed.

  • Ewans, Martin, Sir. Afghanistan: a new history. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon, 2001.

Attendance is mandatory. This course requires you to become familiar with a very complicated country and region, and involved arguments to explain complex phenomena. Missing lecture or discussion, or falling behind on your readings, would make it very difficult for you to do well, and would affect your discussion grade. Please be in class on time.

Try to keep up with news related to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan, and the “War on Terrorism”. I suggest reading the New York Times (, free on the Internet), or the British weekly The Economist. You can access a great daily online compilation of news on Afghanistan by using the news search engine newstrove:
Grade breakdown: Midterm: 30%; Team project: 40%, including 10% for presentation; Participation: 30%.
Description of the three grade components:

  • There will be a midterm exam that consists of essay questions. You will be asked to convincingly synthesize your understanding of theoretical perspectives with your knowledge of Afghan and regional affairs to make policy recommendations to a historical or current participant in Afghan Affairs.

  • Consistent and creative participation that reflects knowledge of the readings is expected. You might be called upon in class to provide analyses or make policy recommendations.

  • You will be divided into groups of 3 to 5 people. All teams will compete to provide a convincing explanation of a true social scientific puzzle that no one has been able to solve: How did the small original Taliban band manage to conquer and rule much of Afghanistan until removed by the US? This probably seems to be an intractable puzzle right now, but you will soon begin coming up with hypotheses as we learn about the country. Each team will provide me with a completed paper at the start of our last meeting, and team members will make 20-minute presentations followed by 10 minutes of Q&A. Teams will compete together and be graded according to rank—so protect your arguments from competing teams. I will rank you based on 1) how convincing your argument is, 2) how well you use evidence to support your argument, and 3) how you write your paper and present/defend your results during our last meeting. Teams run their affairs any way they want, but all team members share the same grade and each team is encouraged to meet me at least once as a group. I hope that you produce great papers and that at least one team gets an A+ for the assignment. There is a chapter in process in my current book project that answers the same question, and I will share my argument with you on the day you present. If you come up with something more convincing or that adds to my argument, then I will include it in my book and acknowledge you and your teammates in the appropriate sections.

I requested that several dozen books on Afghanistan be put on reserve at Green Library, so you could all have access to them, if you want. I wanted to avoid having one team deprive others of important sources. This doesn’t mean that I think all of them are worthwhile or important for the team project, or that there are no other worthy sources. You might also want to consult article databases such as ASAP, J-STOR and Lexis Nexis.

Feel welcome to consult with me anytime. Please restrict email use to concise questions, and talk to me after lecture or during my office hours for longer inquiries. Teams are encouraged to meet me at least once as a group to discuss their projects. My office hours are on Thursdays 1-3 pm at Encina C-221. Once again, always feel welcome to contact me, and to come see me.

Teams must have three to five members. All are

1) Team KABUL:

1. 4.

2. 5.



1. 4.

2. 5.



1. 4.

2. 5.


4) Team HERAT:

1. 4.

2. 5.



1. 4.

2. 5.



1. 4.

2. 5.


7) Team BAMYAN:

1. 4.

2. 5.


Tell me about yourself—PS 218


Year in college:


Do you have any prior knowledge of Afghan Affairs?

Did you take courses on conflict and conflict processes, game theory, Central Asia, or affairs of the Indian sub-continent?
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