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Why the Koran Burnings May Be the Final Straw in Afghanistan

Book burning is just the latest affront on a long list of offenses that have raised tensions in Afghanistan to a boiling point.

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 2:27 PM EST
US Soldiers patrol a village in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Is it all over but the (anti-American) shouting—and the killing? Are the exits finally coming into view?

Sometimes, in a moment, the fog lifts, the clouds shift, and you can finally see the landscape ahead with startling clarity. In Afghanistan, Washington may be reaching that moment in a state of panic, horror, and confusion. Even as an anxious US commander withdrew American and NATO advisors from Afghan ministries around Kabul last weekend—approximately 300, military spokesman James Williams tells TomDispatch—the ability of American soldiers to remain on giant fortified bases eating pizza and fried chicken into the distant future is not in doubt.

No set of Taliban guerrillas, suicide bombers, or armed Afghan "allies" turning their guns on their American "brothers" can alter that —not as long as Washington is ready to bring the necessary supplies into semi-blockaded Afghanistan at staggering cost. But sometimes that's the least of the matter, not the essence of it. So if you're in a mood to mark your calendars, late February 2012 may be the moment when the end game for America's second Afghan War, launched in October 2001, was initially glimpsed.

Amid the reportage about the recent explosion of Afghan anger over the torching of Korans in a burn pit at Bagram Air Base, there was a tiny news item that caught the spirit of the moment. As anti-American protests (and the deaths of protestors) mounted across Afghanistan, the German military made a sudden decision to immediately abandon a 50-man outpost in the north of the country.

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True, they had planned to leave it a few weeks later, but consider the move a tiny sign of the increasing itchiness of Washington's NATO allies. The French have shown a similar inclination to leave town since, earlier this year, four of their troops were blown away (and 16 wounded) by an Afghan army soldier, as three others had been shot down several weeks before by another Afghan in uniform. Both the French and the Germans have also withdrawn their civilian advisors from Afghan government institutions in the wake of the latest unrest.

Now, it's clear enough: the Europeans are ready to go. And that shouldn't be surprising. After all, we're talking about NATO—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—whose soldiers found themselves in distant Afghanistan in the first place only because, since World War II, with the singular exception of French President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, European leaders have had a terrible time saying "no" to Washington. They still can't quite do so, but in these last months it's clear which way their feet are pointed.

Which makes sense. You would have to be blind not to notice that the American effort in Afghanistan is heading into the tank.

The surprising thing is only that the Obama administration, which recently began to show a certain itchiness of its own—speeding up withdrawal dates and lowering the number of forces left behind—remains remarkably mired in its growing Afghan disaster. Besieged by demonstrators there, and at home by Republican presidential hopefuls making hay out of a situation from hell, its room to maneuver in an unraveling, increasingly chaotic situation seems to grow more limited by the day.

 

Sensitivity Training

The Afghan War shouldn't be the world's most complicated subject to deal with. After all, the message is clear enough. Eleven years in, if your forces are still burning Korans in a deeply religious Muslim country, it's way too late and you should go.

Instead, the US command in Kabul and the administration back home have proceeded to tie themselves in a series of bizarre knots, issuing apologies, orders, and threats to no particular purpose as events escalated. Soon after the news of the Koran burning broke, for instance, General John R. Allen, the US war commander in Afghanistan, issued orders that couldn't have been grimmer (or more feeble) under the circumstances. Only a decade late, he directed that all US military personnel in the country undergo 10 days of sensitivity "training in the proper handling of religious materials."

Sensitivity, in case you hadn't noticed at this late date, has not been an American strong suit there. In the headlines in the last year, for instance, were revelations about the 12-soldier "kill team" that "hunted" Afghan civilians "for sport," murdered them, and posed for demeaning photos with their corpses. There were the four wisecracking US Marines who videotaped themselves urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans—whether civilians or Taliban guerrillas is unknown—with commentary ("Have a good day, buddy… Golden—like a shower"). There was also that sniper unit proudly sporting a Nazi SS banner in another photographed incident and the US combat outpost named "Aryan." And not to leave out the allies, there were the British soldiers who were filmed "abusing" children.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Afghans have often experienced the American and NATO occupation of these last years. To take but one example that recently caused outrage, there were the eight shepherd boys, aged six to 18, slaughtered in a NATO air strike in Kapisa Province in northern Afghanistan (with the usual apology and forthcoming "investigation," as well as claims, denied by Afghans who also investigated, that the boys were armed).

More generally, there are the hated night raids launched by special operations forces that break into Afghan homes, cross cultural boundaries of every sort, and sometimes leave death in their wake. Like errant American and NATO air operations, which have been commonplace in these war years, they are reportedly deeply despised by most Afghans.

All of these, in turn, have been protested again and again by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He has regularly demanded that the US military cease them (or bring them under Afghan control). Being the president of Afghanistan, however, he has limited leverage and so American officials have paid little attention to his complaints or his sense of what Afghans were willing to take.

The results are now available for all to see in an explosion of anger spreading across the country. How far this can escalate and how long it can last no one knows. But recent experience indicates that, once a population heads for the streets, anything can happen. All of this could, of course, peter out, but with more than 30 protesters already dead, it could also take on a look reminiscent of the escalating civil war in Syria—including, as has already happened on a small scale in the past, whole units of Afghan security forces defecting to the Taliban.

Unfolding events have visibly overwhelmed and even intimidated the Americans in charge. However, as religious as the country may be and holy as the Koran may be considered, what's happened cannot be fully explained by the book burning. It is, in truth, an explosion a decade in coming.

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