Less than a week after the Qur’an burning incident protests have spread to Pakistan and caused at least thirty casualties. Early Monday morning nine people were killed in a suicide car bombing at Jalabad airport — six civilians, two airport guards and one soldier — while six others were wounded. In the city of Kunduz on Sunday Afghan demonstrators threw a grenade at a U.S. base, wounding seven American troops.
Saturday, two US advisers were shot and killed execution style while sitting at their desks in the Afghan Interior Ministry. Time magazine says a countrywide manhunt is subsequently underway. By Tuesday more than 3,000 people assembled throughout the Kabul area to protest the damaging of at least 100 Qur’ans. Seven were killed and many others were injured. Officials worry that violent protest will continue to grow and spread. CBS proposes that Americans have given the Taliban one more chance to instigate dissent. One protester in Kabul says, “When the Americans insult us to this degree, we will join the insurgents.”
The incident is only further polarizing the Americans and the Afghans. The LA Times sadly illustrated U.S. progress in the Middle East by calling the Qur’an-burning riots “one of the most sustained outbreaks of civil unrest in Afghanistan since the start of the war”! Paddy Smith says the events highlight structural issues involved in adequately training local security forces, as the U.S. and NATO have required for withdrawal in 2014. Nearly a decade into the latest war in the Middle East foreign forces continue to be plagued by a lack of cultural or linguistic understanding.
The burning of at least 15 Qur’ans incited riots on NATO’s Bagram Air Base Monday February 20th, 2012. Two unidentified NATO personnel delivered bags of Qur’ans that were suspected of aiding Parwan detention inmates in communicating with extremist intent. Consequently they were moved from the detention facility to the base landfill for incineration. When the Qur’ans were thrown on the fire, Afghan employees frantically took them out, angrily spreading news of the folly. Mr. Shafaq showed that the inside of the Qur’ans had no evidence toward extremist collusion. Therefore, it is still uncertain why the holy books were burned so nonchalantly or why those involved in the burning were unaware of the consequence of their action. Many employees were conflicted about keeping their jobs. One Afghan man said he couldn’t work for his enemies and another feared he would be killed as a traitor. This issue will have economic repercussions for the local community as well as complicate NATO-Afghan relations on and off the base.
President Obama, Panetta and NATO commander John Allen all apologized for the misunderstanding. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are both criticizing the recent apologies. Gingrich says that the Afghans do not deserve an apology and that it is Karzai who should be apologizing to Americans. One Kabul demonstrator says, “We don’t care about Obama’s apology. We have to protest to be responsible to our god. They are burning our Qur’an. An apology is not enough.” The Afghan defense and interior ministers canceled his trip to Washington, but Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Kabul told CNN that everyone would remain committed to a U.S. partnership with the Afghan people. However, at present such relations are at a standstill as the U.S. embassy in Kabul is locked down, travel is suspended, foreign advisers at the Ministry are cutting back their hours and adapting the length of their contracts, while U.S. troops desperately work to reestablish trust. Furthermore, the LA Times fears that these events will result in a premature exit that doesn’t adequately address women’s rights.
It should be understood by now that such a sign of disrespect would upset Afghan employees. Cultural trainings include PowerPoints, mock villages and Afghan villager role-play, computer-based decision making trainings with several scenarios. Unfortunately the Qur’an burning event shows that augmentations in cultural training have not been enough to avoid inciting violence in an extremely delicate situation. The official solution is to have NATO personnel complete cultural sensitivity training on how to properly handle religious texts by the beginning of next month in addition to an investigation. This solution seems unlikely to be effective when one considers that personnel should have already undergone cultural trainings. Additionally, Georgetown University professor of cultural anthropology Rochelle Davis said, “it’s an impossible task to put before a U.S. soldier to recognize the Qur’an from another book. They don’t know Arabic. How are they going to recognize the Qur’an?”
However, Davis also says that in general, Iraqis and Afghans are tired of being disrespected. For example, they don’t approve of how U.S. troops bring dogs into their homes or touch their women because these are culturally offensive actions. Shopkeeper Wali Aziz says, “They [U.S. troops] are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country.” Davis says Iraqis feel that foreigners have dismissed their abilities to run their own country. This does not bode well for local ownership or other necessities of nation building. Furthermore, researcher Martine van Bijlert writes, “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.” The solution continues to miss the more crucial issue that foreign troops continue to offend locals thus creating reasons for them to turn against U.S. troops to support the Taliban.
Julia A. Heath is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.