By Laura King
February 25, 2012,
The spasm of violence
that has shaken the country since copies of the Quran were dumped in a trash
incinerator at a U.S. military base is emblematic of a culture war among
Afghans themselves, one that is likely to grow more intense as the Western
military presence wanes.
Five days of chaotic
street battles have left more than 30 people dead, including two U.S. military
officers killed Saturday in a heavily guarded Afghan government ministry. The
unrest over the desecration of the Muslim holy book illustrated not only the
depth of religious fervor felt by many here, but also a visceral distaste for
Western behavior and values among a far broader swath of Afghan society.
At the same time,
however, the Obama administration's efforts to kindle negotiations with the
Taliban have generated deep-seated fear among progressive Afghans of a
theocracy-in-waiting that could come to fruition when most North Atlantic
Treaty Organization troops depart.
Many worry that the
United States and its military allies are so eager to find a way out of this
war that they will give their blessing to an accord with the Taliban that does
not adequately safeguard women's rights or civil liberties.
"This is not just
about relations with the U.S.," researcher Martine van Bijlert wrote on
the website of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in the first days of the Quran-burning
protests. "This is part of a wider struggle over what kind of society
Afghanistan is becoming, over who the custodians of religious power will be and
what they will use it for."
Kabul, the capital,
and a few other big Afghan cities have a cosmopolitan veneer of shopping malls
and smart phones and gel-spiked hairdos. But in a society steeped in
conservative Islam, a decade of U.S. military engagement, coupled with a
massive development drive that has brought thousands of foreign civilians to
Afghanistan, has generated profound unease over outsiders' behavior as a
The perceived insults
are many: not only troops' sometimes heavy-handed treatment of ordinary
Afghans, or the video that surfaced last month of U.S. Marines urinating on the
bodies of Taliban fighters, but also men and women consorting freely in heavily
guarded international compounds, or the consumption of alcohol at restaurants
with a mainly non-Afghan clientele.
Moreover, as the
conflict's endgame begins in earnest, some Afghans regard public expressions of
piety as a way of hedging one's bets. This month, for example, the Information
Ministry ordered female television newscasters to cover their hair and refrain
from wearing heavy makeup on-air, a directive that was widely ignored, but
nonetheless cast a chill.
Those killed and
injured in nearly a week of violent clashes, which broke out after U.S.
personnel placed copies of the Koran in the "burn pit" at the giant
Bagram air base north of the capital Monday night, have included demonstrators,
bystanders and Afghan police officers. In addition, two U.S. troops were shot
dead Thursday by an Afghan soldier apparently acting in solidarity with the
Information on the
killings of the two Americans on Saturday remained murky hours after the
shooting. NATO's International Security Assistance Force confirmed the deaths
of two of its service members in Kabul, without disclosing their nationalities,
although Afghan officials speaking on condition of anonymity identified the two
as U.S. military officers who were advising the Interior Ministry.
A ministry spokesman,
Sediq Siddiqi, said the officers' bodies had been discovered in a
command-and-control center used by foreign advisors, and that the assailant had
apparently escaped. U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of
Western troops in Afghanistan, vowed to "pursue all leads" to find
of this attack is a coward whose actions will not go unanswered," he said
in a statement.
By week's end, the Quran-burning
riots had turned into one of the most sustained outbreaks of civil unrest in
Afghanistan since the start of the war, despite an early and emphatic apology
by Allen. Further expressions of regret, in the form of a letter from President
Obama delivered Thursday, also did little to quell public passions, though he
was pilloried for the apology by Republican rivals at home.
For some Afghans,
particularly the better educated, the scenes of strife triggered conflicting
emotions. Many believed that the protests were being deliberately exploited by
a variety of players: the Taliban movement, neighboring countries — such as
Iran and Pakistan — that generally rejoice at yet another American misstep, and
various domestic political factions.
Still, the sense of
bone-deep grievance, expressed in furious cries of "Death to
America!" that echoed at the scene of virtually every protest, resonated
even among those who would never consider taking to the streets with sticks and
stones in a rallying cry for Islam.
"I was personally
offended by what happened," said Hamed Saboori, a college-educated
30-year-old who described himself as a moderate Muslim. "But there are
elements that want to take advantage of this irresponsible act. The whole issue
has been manipulated."
Some imams, or mosque
preachers, delivered fiery sermons that helped drive the protests, turning the
week's events into a broader complaint about the Western entanglement in
Koran at Bagram is an unforgivable crime and sin," Inayatullah Baleegh
thundered from the pulpit of a Kabul mosque Friday, the main prayer day of the
Islamic week. "But the presence of infidels in a Muslim country is an even
The Taliban, too,
sought to portray a society that had fallen in thrall to the West.
"Under the slogan
of 'freedom,' new doors of corruption are being flung open every day," the
movement said in a midweek statement, as the protests were gathering force.
"Blind imitation of the Western infidels is being encouraged in our cities
and villages; the veil of modesty and dignity is being lifted from our women under
the slogan of 'women's rights.' ... All these things are brought to us by the
accursed Western invasion, which is forcing itself upon us in the name of
previously used violent protests as cover for attacks on government buildings
and NATO bases, both of which were targeted repeatedly over a period of days.
As the days passed, more gunmen were spotted in the crowds, and some protesters
waved the white flag of the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid
Karzai, accustomed to walking a fine line between his American patrons and
popular sentiment, called for calm, but tempered that with expressions of
sympathy for the protesters' cause, urging police to exercise restraint and
patience with "emotional" demonstrators.
Even if the protests show
signs of ebbing, lasting damage may have been done to what the Americans regard
as essential partnerships with the Afghan government and security forces.
shooting deaths of the two Americans at the Interior Ministry, Allen recalled
all Western military personnel working in ministries "for obvious
force-protection reasons," a serious blow after years of American efforts
to make the ministries more efficient and less corrupt. And the general himself
traveled Thursday to the base in Nangarhar province where the two American
troops were shot and killed by a member of the Afghan army, urging his troops
to stifle any impulse to take revenge.
happened this week makes it harder for anyone to trust anyone," said
Zeinab Khuttab, a university student in Kabul. "And that was probably the
intention behind it all, to drive everyone further apart."
Source: Los Angeles Times