Page 2 of 3

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

Precursors and Omens

After the grim years of Taliban rule, when the Americans arrived in Kabul in November 2001, liberation was in the air. More than 10 years later, the mood is clearly utterly transformed and, for the first time, there are reports of "Taliban songs" being sung at demonstrations in the streets of the capital. Afghanistan is, as the New York Times reported last weekend (using language seldom seen in American newspapers) "a religious country fed up with foreigners"; or as Laura King of the Los Angeles Times put it, there is now "a visceral distaste for Western behavior and values" among significant numbers of Afghans.

Years of pent up frustration, despair, loathing, and desperation are erupting in the present protests. That this was long on its way can't be doubted.

Among the more shocking events in the wake of the Koran burnings was the discovery in a room in the heavily guarded Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul of the bodies of an American lieutenant colonel and major, each evidently executed with a shot in the back of the head while at work. The killer, who worked in the ministry, was evidently angered by the Koran burnings and possibly by the way the two Americans mocked Afghan protesters and the Koran itself. He escaped. The Taliban (as in all such incidents) quickly took responsibility, though it may not have been involved at all.

What clearly rattled the American command, however, and led them to withdraw hundreds of advisors from Afghan ministries around Kabul was that the two dead officers were "inside a secure room" that bars most Afghans. It was in the ministry's command and control complex. (By the way, if you want to grasp some of the problems of the last decade just consider that the Afghan Interior Ministry includes an area open to foreigners, but not to most Afghans who work there.)

As the New York Times put it, the withdrawal of the advisors was "a clear sign of concern that the fury had reached deeply into even the Afghan security forces and ministries working most closely with the coalition." Those two dead Americans were among four killed in these last days of chaos by Afghan "allies." Meanwhile, the Taliban urged Afghan police and army troops, some of whom evidently need no urging, to attack US military bases and American or NATO forces.

Two other US troops died outside a small American base in Nangarhar Province near the Pakistani border in the midst of an Afghan demonstration in which two protestors were also killed. An Afghan soldier gunned the Americans down and then evidently escaped into the crowd of demonstrators. Such deaths, in a recent Washington Post piece, were termed "fratricide," though that perhaps misconstrues the feelings of many Afghans, who over these last years have come to see the Americans as occupiers and possibly despoilers, but not as brothers.

Historically unprecedented in the modern era is the way, in the years leading up to this moment, Afghans in police and army uniforms have repeatedly turned their weapons on American or NATO troops training, working with, or patrolling with them. Barely more than a week ago, for instance, an Afghan policeman killed the first Albanian soldier to die in the war. Earlier in the year, there were those seven dead French troops. At least 36 US and NATO troops have died in this fashion in the past year. Since 2007, there have been at least 47 such attacks. These have been regularly dismissed as "isolated incidents" of minimal significance by US and NATO officials and, unbelievably enough, are still being publicly treated that way.

Yet not in Iraq, nor during the Vietnam War, nor the Korean conflict, nor even during the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the twentieth century were there similar examples of what once would have been called "native troops" turning on those training, paying for, and employing them. You would perhaps have to go back to the Sepoy Rebellion, a revolt by Indian troops against their British officers in 1857, for anything comparable.

In April 2011, in the most devastating of these incidents, an Afghan air force colonel murdered nine US trainers in a heavily guarded area of Kabul International Airport. He was reportedly angry at Americans generally and evidently not connected to the Taliban. And consider this an omen of things to come: his funeral in Kabul was openly attended by 1,500 mourners.

Put in the most practical terms, the Bush and now Obama administrations have been paying for and training an Afghan security force numbering in the hundreds of thousands—to the tune of billions dollars annually ($11 billion last year alone). They are the ones to whom the American war is to be "handed over" as US forces are drawn down. Now, thanks either to Taliban infiltration, rising anger, or some combination of the two, it's clear that any American soldier who approaches a member of the Afghan security forces to "hand over" anything takes his life in his hands. No war can be fought under such circumstances for very long.

 

Apologies, Pleas, and Threats

So don't say there was no warning, or that Obama's top officials shouldn't have been prepared for the present unraveling. But when it came, the administration and the military were caught desperately off guard and painfully flatfooted.

In fact, through repeated missteps and an inability to effectively deal with the fallout from the Koran-burning incident, Washington now finds itself trapped in a labyrinth of investigations, apologies, pleas, and threats. Events have all but overwhelmed the administration's ability to conduct an effective foreign policy. Think of it instead as a form of diplomatic pinball in which US officials and commanders bounce from crisis to crisis with a limited arsenal of options and a toxic brew of foreign and domestic political pressures at play.

How did the pace get quite so dizzying? Let's start with those dead Afghan shepherd boys. On February 15th, the US-led International Security Force (ISAF) "extended its deep regret to the families and loved ones of several Afghan youths who died during an air engagement in Kapisa province Feb 8." According to an official press release, ISAF insisted, as in so many previous incidents, that it was "taking appropriate action to ascertain the facts, and prevent similar occurrences in the future."

The results of the investigation were still pending five days later when Americans in uniform were spotted by Afghan workers tossing those Korans into that burn pit at Bagram Air Base. The Afghans rescued several and smuggled them—burnt pages and all—off base, sparking national outrage. Almost immediately, the next act of contrition came forth. "On behalf of the entire International Security Assistance Force, I extend my sincerest apologies to the people of Afghanistan," General Allen announced the following day. At the same time, in a classic case of too-little, too-late, he issued that directive for training in "the proper handling of religious materials."

That day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was on the same page, telling reporters that the burning of the Muslim holy books was "deeply unfortunate," but not indicative of the Americans' feelings toward the religious beliefs of the Afghan people. "Our military leaders have apologized... for these unintentional actions, and ISAF is undertaking an investigation to understand what happened and to ensure that steps are taken so that incidents like this do not happen again."

On February 22nd, an investigation of the Koran burnings by a joint ISAF-Afghan government team commenced. "The purpose of the investigation is to discover the truth surrounding the events which resulted in this incident," Allen said. "We are determined to ascertain the facts, and take all actions necessary to ensure this never happens again."

The next day, as Afghan streets exploded in anger, Allen called on "everyone throughout the country—ISAF members and Afghans—to exercise patience and restraint as we continue to gather the facts surrounding Monday night's incident."

That very same day, Allen's commander-in-chief sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that included an apology, expressing "deep regret for the reported incident." "The error was inadvertent,'' President Obama wrote. "I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.''

Page 2 of 3