By Sultan M Hali
Tension is running high in Afghanistan after the burning of the copies of the Holy Quran by American soldiers at Bagram Airbase, a large US base north of Kabul. Since the incident, 35 people have been killed in clashes between the protesters and the Afghan forces. The disgraceful act resulted in outrage among Afghans, and they resorted to rioting and arson. It has given a great blow to American efforts to win over the hearts and of the Afghan people.
In fact, there seems lack of understanding of the deep sentiments of the Afghan Muslims and the reverence they hold the Holy Scriptures in. Ordinary Afghans, even if they are illiterate, keep their personal copies of the Holy Quràn wrapped in covers and store them at a high and safe place in their houses to preserve the sanctity of the Holy Book. The act of US troops callously disregarding the holiness of the Book and dumping the pages in the incinerator pit broke the hearts of the devout Afghans. The news of the desecration of the Holy Quràn spread like wildfire and the relations between the local Afghans and the US troops became tense and the violence became widespread. The incident swiftly spiraled out of control leaving dozens of people dead, including four US troops killed by their Afghan counterparts. Meanwhile, Afghan authorities launched a manhunt across the country for a driver they suspect in the killing of two US military advisers who were shot to death at an Afghan ministry. International advisers working at Afghan ministries were recalled out of fears of another attack. In Kunduz province, thousands of demonstrators started out protesting peacefully but then the group turned violent as they tried to enter the district’s largest city. People in the crowd fired on police and threw grenades at a US base on the city outskirts, while seven NATO troops were wounded and one protester was killed when troops fired out from the US base. A car bomb claimed nine lives outside Jalalabad airport.
It is mentionable that President Obama and other US officials have apologized for the burnings, which they said were a mistake. But their apologies have failed to quell the anger of Afghans, who see the Quràn burnings as an illustration of what they perceive as foreign disrespect for their culture and religion. They are demanding not just apologies, but a local trial and the death penalty for the Koran burners. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has condemned the incident, renewed his calls for calm in a televised address to the nation lest the enemy exploits the situation.
In this regard, to throw salt in the wound, Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich demanded a formal apology from the Afghans for killing US soldiers. The incident has provided more fodder to the Taliban, who have proved more than a match for the US troops. They are likely to exploit the heinous incident to their advantage and further inflame the Afghan angst. In a year of Presidential election in the USA, Obama is facing a multitude of problems. A major challenge for the Obama administration was recuperation of the economic setbacks inherited from George W. Bush. Obama tried to turn around the economic meltdown by attempting to take people into confidence by bringing a new law on signing economic stimulus plan to expand state health insurance program and enhancing bank systems, but his critics focused on a different issue, taking a narrow view of Obama’s policy announcing plans for the closure of the Guantanamo prison in Cuba, incarcerating the so called Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements.
Meanwhile, the imprisoned suspects were shifted to Kandahar and Bagram bases Jail which later on proved far worse than the Guantanamo Bay prison. Consequently Washington decided to deploy additional US troops in Afghanistan to meet the growing threat from the Taliban. The US defence planners’ assessment of the threat was inadequate in the face of guerrilla tactics and hit and run strategy of the Taliban, which took a heavy toll of the US and NATO troops. Despite the troops’ surge and much hyped Marjah and Kandahar operations, which failed to achieve the desired results, the Obama administration, which had announced a drawdown of the US troops from Afghanistan by 2014, decided to engage the Taliban in a dialogue for peace. The peace talks too have undergone numerous ups and down. The instances of Taliban imposters making away with “reconciliation money” and the cold blooded assassination of former Afghan President and head of the peace and reconciliation committee, Burhanuddin Rabbani are still fresh in the minds to make US administration wince with discomfort. Ultimately, the process has gone underway, with the US providing tacit approval to the Taliban setting up an office at Doha, Qatar and meeting with selected representatives.
While, a prolonged war led by the US in Afghanistan, which has become the longest in American history has taken a major toll of not only US economy but also of the morale and mental health of US soldiers. Frayed nerves and psychologically battered US troops have committed unthinkable crimes in Afghanistan. The transgressions of the US Kill Teams, the urinating over Afghan dead bodies by US Marines, abusing Afghan children, the reprehensible nigh raids and indiscriminate moral turpitude of US soldiers have left a dark smear on the US image. The much publicized case of the US diplomat, who resigned in 2009, condemning the war in Afghanistan, stating that the war in Afghanistan was aimed to occupy its natural resources did not help matters. The US drone attacks continue to take a large toll of civilian life and further alienate the US. In face of domestic protests in USA, Obama is likely to expedite the drawdown of US troops. Eleven years in, if US forces are still burning Quràns in a deeply religious Muslim country, it’s way too late and they should leave posthaste.
The author is a retired Group Captain of PAF & an analyst, columnist & TV talk show host.