Who are the Taliban? Where is Pakistan? Why should I care?

Who are the Taliban?  Where is Pakistan?  And why should I care?

If we take time to slow down and help students understand the world, it can be a fascinating place.  They can make all sorts of connections. And they can begin to understand complex world events.

As an example, this morning, I heard on the BBC that a prominent police chief in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city (and one of the five largest cities in the world), had been killed by a car bombing. I looked up the story when I got home.  Here’s a link.

This police chief was apparently quite effective in fighting against the Taliban in Pakistan, and the Taliban took responsibility for the bombing, which killed that police officer and a few other people as well.

Here’s how the story appears on the BBC:

pakistani taliban

This is the sort of story a middle school student might ignore — but if we help provide context, they can use this as a springboard to understand all sorts of things about today’s world.

To start with, it looks like the bombing occurred in a section of Karachi called “Essa Nagri.”  I just found “Essa Nagri” on Google Earth (that was easy — just type it in — Google Earth knows where it is) and now I’m trying to picture a car filled with explosives crashing into a convoy of cars in that section of Karachi.

Here’s a close-up of what that Essa Nagri looks like — as you can see, it’s densely populated:


And here’s where Essa Nagri is, relative to the rest of Karachi (as you can see, I made a place mark on Essa Nagri, using Google Earth):


If we zoom out a bit more, we can get some idea of where Karachi is located within Pakistan, a country we should know something about since it has nuclear weapons and a population of more than 180 million people (#6 in the world, after Brazil):

Essa Nagri

The green S-shaped ribbon running through Pakistan is vegetation on either side of the Indus River — students should learn a bit about that river if this is the first time they are encountering Pakistan.  And for most students, this will be the first time they are learning about Pakistan. Even if they may have heard that Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan by the Taliban, they won’t likely know much about Pakistan.

Let’s slow down and look at the map.  What’s that country to the East of Pakistan?  The one with New Delhi labeled as its capital?  Oh, that’s India — population 1.2 billion.  Do students know that India and Pakistan were both part of British colonial India, but soon after it gained independence in 1947, the country was divided, causing all sorts of chaos for the Muslims and Hindus in the area?  If not, now would be a good time to give students that context (and introduce or review the basics of Hinduism and Islam).

Students who are going to engage with the world need to get that basic context about modern Pakistan before starting to explore the more complex question of who the Taliban are in Pakistan … but if they are to engage with the world, they have to start somewhere, so why not Pakistan?

Now that we know a bit about Pakistan (and we would of course stop to see what other questions students might have about Pakistan), let’s now move our focus to the Taliban and try to figure out what that group is doing in Pakistan…

I’ve written about the Taliban before on this blog — just after the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by members of the Taliban.

Here’s a link to my Taliban primer for middle school students.  It’s a long post, but that makes sense because the Taliban are a difficult group to understand.

If you look back up at the picture from the BBC coverage, in the lower right corner you will see a link called Who are the Taliban?

If you click the link I just provided above, you will get a great summary by the BBC of who the Taliban are, how they protected Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan (prompting the US to invade Afghanistan and take the Taliban out of power there), and how they treated people — especially women — while they were in power.

You will also learn that the Taliban originated in northwest Pakistan.  Here’s a quote from that BBC piece about the Taliban:

The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

A predominantly Pashtun movement, the Taliban came to prominence in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1994.

It would help middle school students to explore a map at this point.

pak map

Northern Pakistan borders Afghanistan.  And Pakistan also borders Iran.  It’s useful for students (and teachers) learning about this region for the first time to review the geography on a regular basis, because few students have a good visual for what Pakistan looks like, let alone what countries it borders.

As the BBC article about the Taliban points out, the Taliban started expanding out of Afghanistan right near Iran:

From south-western Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly extended their influence.

They captured the province of Herat, bordering Iran, in September 1995.

Exactly one year later, they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, after overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defence minister, Ahmed Shah Masood.

By 1998, they were in control of almost 90% of Afghanistan.

So now we have more of a sense of where the Taliban come from.

Why would the Taliban want to kill a police officer in Pakistan who had been trying to eliminate them?  So they can gain more power.  They would like to have as much influence as they can in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the world.  Now the bombing starts to make a bit more sense.

This is hard work — there are a lot of unfamiliar terms to deal with, and a lot of background reading to do.  But if students want to start to engage with the world, and are willing to put in time and effort, middle students absolutely can understand why the Taliban are in Pakistan, and why they might bomb a police officer in Karachi.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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