Syria's government said that almost 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for a referendum on a new Constitution today, and almost 90 percent of those voiced their approval.
But the political show is likely to do nothing to mollify Bashar al-Assad's opponents or end the war that is now gripping large parts of the country. Though the new Constitution theoretically allows multiparty competition for power in Syria for the first time since the Baath Party took power in 1963, there's good reason for Mr. Assad's political opponents not to believe it.
Syria's elections have been routinely rigged under Assad, much as they were under his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. The torture and murder of dissidents has been commonplace for decades. And the younger Assad's actions, far more than his words, show a steely desire to hold on to power as long as possible. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the referendum was "clearly a sham."
For real declarations of Assad's intent, you need look no further than Homs today. Last week, a group of foreign journalists was caught in an artillery barrage there, killing the Sunday Times' Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik. The death of the foreigners brought greater international attention to the month-long siege of the city, particularly of its Baba Amr neighborhood, where hundreds of Syrians – political activists and average civilians alike – have been killed.
It was hoped the increased scrutiny, with a number of wounded foreigners trapped inside the city, would lead Assad and allies like Russia, his major arms supplier, to reconsider the situation. Yesterday, US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote that "Homs is on the verge of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Russia should contact Assad immediately to demand a 24-hour humanitarian cease fire."
Though Assad's forces briefly held up on their assault yesterday, allowing the Red Crescent and Red Cross to evacuate about 30 wounded women and children, any hopes for an extended break in the attacks there were dashed today. Syrian activists allege at least 125 people have been killed across Syria today, with 68 of the dead killed in Homs. The Local Coordinating Committees, a loose network of anti-Assad activists inside the country, alleged that dozens of civilians were killed at a checkpoint as they tried to flee the city, though that has not yet been independently confirmed.
Syrian society has now become so polarized, that whatever slim chance a constitutional change would have ever had to shore up Assad's rule has evaporated. The Internet has been filled with horrific videos and photographs of dead and dying civilians and the emotions of the situation – and fears of what Assad would do with his opponents if he were to win a decisive victory – are now a guarantee of ongoing conflict.
The Syrian regime has adopted the accusatory stance of Egypt under Mubarak, Tunisia under Ben Ali, and Libya under Qaddafi last year: That the extent of the uprising and the death toll is the fault of "meddling" outside powers, not of its own mistakes. That was a position Syria reiterated today, even as international human rights groups said the death toll from months of violence is now over 8,000.
The calls from liberal interventionists to arm Syria's rebels, or perhaps for the US and other Western powers to intervene directly, are mounting, though it's hard to see a major international effort against Assad anytime soon. Syria is not Libya.
The country has deep sectarian divisions (Assad's regime draws much of its strength from the minority Alawite sect he belongs to), is in a geopolitically complicated region (Syria shares a border with both Israel and with Iraq, a country whose own sectarian war deposited tens of thousands of refugees inside its borders) and has powerful friends in Russia, China, and Iran.
It's hard to see a fast improvement in the situation. The one thing that's certain is that a new Constitution is not going to be relevant to the ultimate resolution of the country's conflict.
A 718-page digital document obtained by Mother Jones contains names, phone numbers, neighborhoods, and alleged activities of thousands of dissidents apparently targeted by the Syrian government. Three experts asked separately by Mother Jones to examine the document – essentially a massive spreadsheet, whose contents are in Arabic – say they believe that it is authentic. As Bashar Al-Assad's military continues a deadly crackdown on dissent inside the country, the list appears to confirm in explicit detail the scale of the regime's domestic surveillance and its methodical efforts to destroy widespread opposition.
The article speculates about how the list is being used, but doesn't really know. But it doesn't take much imagination to speculate. The Syrian mukhabarat has long been used to torture and kill anti-regime activists, and the regime has also used the family members of activists living abroad as leverage against them.
The cases of more than 30 Syrian activists living in eight countries in Europe and North and South America – Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA – who say they have faced intimidation from embassy officials and others apparently because of their activities in solidarity with the pro-reform movement in Syria. Many have been filmed and orally intimidated while taking part in protests outside Syrian embassies, while some have been threatened, including with death threats, or physically attacked by individuals believed to be connected to the Syrian regime. Some of the activists have told Amnesty International that relatives living in Syria have been visited and questioned by the security forces about their activities abroad and, in several cases, have been detained and even tortured as an apparent consequence.
The death toll is mounting from the shelling campaign in Homs and other cities. The odds are that quieter arrests and disappearances of regime opponents also continue.
Julian Assange and Wikileaks have been desperate for another home run in the 24 months since they began releasing a vast library of US diplomatic cables and military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Assange's organization has been on the decline since, with credit card companies refusing to process donations, infighting among early Wikileaks programmers that has left it without a secure "drop box" to receive leaks, and early journalistic collaborators like The New York Times and The Guardian falling out with Assange.
But Assange thinks he's hit paydirt again, with seven years of emails stolen from the Texas-based Stratfor, a company that provides intelligence and geopolitical analysis. Stratfor says it generates its own intelligence for reports, though it also relies heavily on open-source data collection. I've read dozens of their reports over the years. I've found some wildly speculative, others accurate but banal, and still others intriguing.
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And while I've found some Stratfor analysis to be flat wrong, and so perhaps harmful if conclusions are taken by policymakers at face value, I've never seen anything nefarious or dangerous. Yet today, the
internet is filled with claims that the Stratfor is some kind of "shadow CIA," with ominous warnings about its hidden influence and functions.
The emails were stolen by hackers who claim to be aligned with the amorphous activist group "Anonymous." Though Assange hasn't confirmed they're the source, there was much online crowing by the Anonymous crowd in December that they'd broken into Stratfor's computers.
Assange is of the view there's something dangerous about Statfor. "Here we have a private intelligence firm, relying on informants from the US government, foreign intelligence agencies with questionable reputations and journalists," he told Reuters. "What is of grave concern is that the targets of this scrutiny are, among others, activist organizations fighting for a just cause."
I'm not sure what evidence of "activists fighting for a just cause" being "targeted" by Stratfor will emerge from the millions of emails stolen by hackers from the company's servers (there is evidence that they collected information on Occupy Wall Street protesters but, well, so were lots of journalists). And the first half of that quote on their methods applies to, well, me and any other reporter who's ever covered international affairs. Over the years, I've received information from spies, diplomats, other hacks, and a few really unsavory characters (murderers). If you want information, you go where the information is.
Wikileak's says the emails "reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal's Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The emails show Stratfor's web of informers, pay-off structure, payment laundering techniques and psychological methods."
The language in that short paragraph is like one long toot on a dog-whistle for the paranoid. There are dozens of companies that provide strategic analysis and intelligence to large corporations. Some of them even employ lots of former CIA operatives and specialize in ferreting out the dirt inside companies. Still others have their own mercenary armies (i.e., Blackwater). Statfor is on the mild end of the scary shadow CIA/stodgy think tank spectrum.
Yet Stratfor, which courts publicity and has a high profile thanks to its free circulation of much of its content, has attracted plenty of speculation over the years. The company's Victoria Allen vents about this in one of the stolen emails. "The media refers to us as a think tank, a political risk consultancy, a security company and worse--academics," she writes. "The Russian media calls us part of the CIA. Arab countries say we are Israelis. It’s wild. The only things we haven’t been called is a hardware store or Druids."
Indeed, Russia Today, a Kremlin propaganda arm that recently gave Assange his own show, is fond of calling Stratfor a "shadow CIA." (RT, as it's known, hit my radar screen with its fact free reporting that Tripoli wasn't falling last August).
But there is nothing nefarious about collecting and sharing intelligence. And while Wikileaks presents itself as an anti-secrecy organization, there's something more than a little ironic about targeting a group that works on ... revealing secrets. And from where I sit, it's not much of a stretch from targeting a group like Stratfor to going after newspapers or academics.
That's certainly how Stratfor is seeking to paint the situation. "This is a deplorable, unfortunate — and illegal — breach of privacy," Stratfor said in a press release. "As with last year's hack, the release of these emails is a direct attack on Stratfor. This is another attempt to silence and intimidate the company, and one we reject."
When I was a freelancer in the 1990s, I occasionally did contract work for a private intelligence firm. I was paid to research Indonesian companies. I would take former employees and competitors to lunch and try to find out whether a firm was concealing debts or engaged in asset-stripping. Though I was never told who the clients were, it was clear they were foreign firms interested in investing who had limited on-the-ground assets to conduct research.
I see no shame in this. But if my occasional employer from more than a decade ago had been hacked, my name would probably be included in a list of "paid informants" like the ones Assange is now circulating. Wikileaks is treading a dangerous path, and one that can lead to more concealment of information as easily as it could to less.
After 10 years of war, NATO has decided that the Afghan ministries it funds, and whose guards it has trained and armed, are too dangerous for its personnel.
That decision followed the murders of two American officers by what appears to have been an Afghan policemen in the Interior Ministry in Kabul. Afghan officials say the killer was probably enraged by the burning of Qurans by US troops at Bagram Air Base, an event that has led to angry mobs besieging NATO and UN compounds across the country. At least 20 Afghans have been killed in the rioting so far.
The Quran burning also inspired an Afghan soldier to murder two US troops and wound four others on Thursday.
IN PHOTOS Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan?
Gen.John Allen, the US commander of NATO forces inf Afghanistan, ordered all advisers withdrawn from Afghan ministries in response to the killings at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Afghan police.
"For obvious force protection reasons, I have also taken immediate measures to recall all other ISAF personnel working in ministries in and around Kabul," General Allen said in statement. "We are committed to our partnership with the Government of Afghanistan to reach our common goal of a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan in the near future."
US troops will probably soon be back in Afghan ministries, though count on new force protection protocols (US troops providing protection might be a place to start). But in the past few years the NATO effort has been intensely focused on training Afghan soldiers and police.
Rates of desertion, illiteracy, and drug abuse remain stubbornly high. And so-called green on blue incidents, the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) preferred term for Afghan troops murdering NATO troops, have also become increasingly common. It hasn't felt very peaceful, stable, and secure.
The BBC reports that rioters in the northeastern city of Kunduz, about 300 miles from Kabul, set parts of the UN compound there on fire, as well as other buildings in the city. The situation for foreigners in Afghanistan is now extremely tense, with many in Kabul wondering if they should consider evacuating the city.
That the Quran burning would lead to this was sadly predictable.
The public fury unleashed by events is also a reminder that Afghans are chafing at the extended military occupation of the country. And now Mr. Allen has been forced to concede with his orders today that agents of the Afghan government, NATO's local ally in its war against the Taliban, can't be trusted.
The simple fact is that after 10 years of war, hearts and minds have not been won. Legions of civilian and military advisers from Europe and the US, seeking to inculcate an outside political culture in the hearts of Afghans, have largely failed. The tinder of anger and humiliation is thick on the ground. And this is not just about Taliban supporters.
In my one brief trip to Afghanistan over a year ago, I met plenty of Afghans with no love for the Taliban who spoke of their distaste for the foreign presence. Their culture is not our culture. They do not want it to be.
Of course, nothing like Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone's disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842, when a column of camp-followers, British officers and Indian soldiers numbering some 16,500 were harried by Afghan fighters for over a week before being massacred at Gandamak pass (only one man from the original column made it to safety), is in the offing. NATO troops are too well armed and equipped to be driven out of Kabul, or any other major bases in the country.
But now, just as 150 years ago, Afghans in general have little love for the foreigners in their midst. Given that, outbursts like those of the past week, while containable, can happen from time to time. NATO will try to put the best face on the situation, as it has been trying to do for years, but the US and its partners have much to consider in the weeks ahead.
President Obama is seeking to negotiate an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (who currently holds power thanks to a fraud-marred election) on the US role in the country beyond 2014, when a troop pullout is currently scheduled. So far, those talks have gone nowhere. In May, Mr. Obama will host a NATO meeting on Afghanistan in which he's expected to be more precise about the size and pace of troop reductions in the country. Obama doubled down on the Afghan war with a troop surge soon after he took office, though not as big or open-ended as generals had been pushing for.
The US president now has European allies tired of the war and grappling with economic crisis at home. With the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May, the US public's appetite for the Afghan war has also diminished. A CNN poll in October found domestic support for the war at its lowest point since it started in 2001, down to 34 percent. Over 1,900 US soldiers have now been killed in the Afghan war.
It bears repeating: The two latest US casualties were in the heart of the Afghan Interior ministry, killed by an Afghan whose gun and ammunition were paid for by the US taxpayer.
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The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear program is in much the same vein of past reports: There is plenty of smoke, but not fire, on possible nuclear-related weapons work by the Islamic Republic.
Recent visits to Iran by IAEA members resulted in limited cooperation from Tehran, a refusal to provide access to the Parchin military base where inspectors believe work on a detonating component for a nuclear bomb has been conducted, and evidence of an expanding program of nuclear enrichment. Two sets of meetings with Iranian officials went nowhere, with Tehran effectively stonewalling the IAEA, according to the report.
On the IAEA's concerns about possible weapons-related work, Iran "dismissed the Agency’s concerns in relation to the aforementioned issues, largely on the grounds that Iran considered them to be based on unfounded allegations," the report says. The IAEA board "called on Iran to engage seriously and without preconditions in talks aimed at restoring international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme" and "identified the clarification of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme as the top priority."
In short, the IAEA and everyone else following the question of Iran's nuclear program, which the country insists is for peaceful purposes only, are pretty much where they've been for over a year now. Iran is not fully cooperating with inspectors, creating the impression that it's hiding something. The IAEA can't report on places it can't visit, fueling more doubt. And Iran continues to dig in its heels on not providing more access and transparency.
None of that looks good. But there is no evidence, only doubt – albeit doubt that Tehran itself continues to sow. Here's how the report puts it, summarizing a position laid out in greater detail last November:
A detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency (indicates) that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information, which comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself, is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that: prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing.
Is there a reason for concealment if weapons work isn't ongoing? (The US intelligence establishment's position has been that weapons related work has been stalled for some time.) Perhaps. Ambiguity is useful in sowing doubt in foreign powers like the US, where politicians have been muttering about regime change in Iran for some time. In the run up to the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein didn't comply fully with inspectors looking for chemical and biological weapons programs that he didn't have. In that case, he appeared to hope that the chance he might have such weapons could deter an attack.
It's possible that Iran is playing a similar game. But its nuclear capabilities, particularly when it comes to enriching uranium, are clearly expanding. It is producing fuel that can be used in nuclear reactors or, if enriched further, that could be at the core of a bomb.
The IAEA's interest in Parchin stems from what it calls credible information that Iran installed a containment vessel at Parchin in 2000 that could be used to test the high explosive detonator for a nuclear bomb, and that such tests may have been undertaken with the assistance of a "foreign" nuclear expert. Though no nationality was named, the international nuclear proliferation network of Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan was still in full swing a decade ago.
The agency has little information about what has happened at Parchin in the past -- and what work may or may not be going on there now -- and is eager to remedy that, but Iran has been insistent in saying "no." It appears the agency considers the question of Parchin a top priority.
IAEA "Director General (Yukiya Amano) urges Iran to address the Agency’s serious concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, including, as a first step, by responding to the Agency’s questions related to Parchin and the foreign expert, and by granting early access in that regard," the report says.
What now? Any hopes that recent outreach to Tehran and the series of talks carried out there in recent weeks would lead to concessions, and more clarity, has been dimmed. Doubt and fear over the nuclear program remain.
From getting all the rocket thrusters to work properly to developing heat shields that can withstand the stresses of rapid atmospheric reentry, Iran is probably many years away from getting an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The American spy apparatus, which once hyped the Iranian missile threat, has quietly stopping saying when Iran can hit the east coast. And the irony is that it’s taking Iran so long precisely because its missile efforts really are sophisticated.
“The bottom line,” says Paul Pillar, a veteran CIA Mideast analyst, “is that the intelligence community does not believe [the Iranians] are anywhere close to having an ICBM.”
It's in Israel's interests of course to convince the US otherwise, since Iran does have missiles that can reach that country. Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a CNBC interview on Wednesday. "We estimate that in 2-3 years they will have the first inter-continental ballistic missiles that can reach the east coast of America."
That assessment is far out of line from the United States' current one – not that the US is always right. In 1998 former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Iran was 5 years away from obtaining an ICBM that could hit the eastern US. 2003 came and went without any such breakthrough.
Iran being multiple years away from something scary -- having a nuclear weapon or a really good long range missile -- has been a sort of regular facet of the debate since the late '70s, as this list of dire, unfulfilled predictions makes clear. Former Sen. Alan Cranston of California had Iran seven years away from a nuclear bomb in 1984, for instance.
The predicted decisive time periods have been getting shorter of late. Iran is more technically capable today than it was a decade ago, and if it chose to obtain a nuclear weapon, most technical experts believe it's probably capable of making one or two in a few years. The US intelligence assessment remains that Iran has not yet made that choice.
I wrote a few days ago about Bashar al-Assad's use of 240mm mortar rounds on the city of Homs, particularly the Baba Amr neighborhood, where dozens have died in the past week of withering shelling, among them two foreign reporters.
Monitor librarian Leigh Montgomery and the folks at SIPRI (they have forgotten more about the world's arsenals than you will ever know) helped me track down a little more information about what the Syrian regime is using on Homs, and possibly other cities.
I'd thought the firing platform for these beast-sized mortars -- with 75 pounds of explosives and a range of up to 12 miles -- was the Russian-made Tulip, basically a tank designed to deal death from a distance. But while it's possible that Tulips have been delivered by Russia to Syria in the past year, there's no evidence of that, and past SIPRI research shows no signs they've ever been delivered to the country. (Russia is Syria's major arms supplier, and the value of its shipments increased by 58 percent last year.)
But what SIPRI confirms is in Syria's arsenal is the Russian M240 for firing these mortars. While not as sophisticated as the Tulip, the M240 – towed into position by a heavy truck – still delivers accurate fire. It has been frequently used by Syria, from the 1973 war with Israel to the punitive expedition Assad's father, Hafez, launched on his own city of Hama in 1982, which left more than 10,000 residents dead.
In Iraq, I've been close to incoming mortar fire (far smaller) and it's terrifying. Raining mortars down on a densely populated area is beyond criminal.
Below is a video of US troops in Afghanistan firing smaller mortars in the Korengal Valley. Imagine if that ridge was filled with apartment blocks and the shells were at least twice the size, and you have a good picture of what's been happening in Homs.
(Update: Without providing much in the way of details, the British Foreign Ministry said Conroy is leaving Syria. No mention of Edith in the AFP piece, but it's reasonable to assume she'll be leaving with him, however that was arranged.)
The reporters should never be the story. The reporters should never be the story. We're told this when we're starting out by the older and wiser, we tell ourselves this again and again when we think about doing something brave (or stupid, depending on your perspective), and I've been muttering this under my breath following the recent deaths of Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin, and Remi Ochlik in Syria.
Anthony passed because his asthma caught up with him while being smuggled out of Syria, far from modern medical care. Marie and Remi were killed in a mortar and rocket attack in the Syrian city of Homs, which by the day is looking more like Grozny during the height of the Russian assault on the Chechen capital over a decade ago (the city is even being hit by the same ghastly weapons).
All three of them would agree, were they still here to speak, that their deaths are not the story. Marie's last dispatch for the Sunday Times described a devastated city and in an email to friends described a baby dying of his wounds in a makeshift hospital. Remi, not yet 30, had survived the mortar barrages on the Libyan city of Misrata last year (which claimed the lives of fellow photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros). Anthony's sensitive reporting from Iraq about a nation struggling with the legacy of a brutal dictator and a new war (that we were sadly reminded today is far from over) won him a Pulitzer.
Like most of us who have willingly inhabited the world's war zones, Anthony and Tyler, Marie and Remi, were and are motivated by a powerful impulse to tell the stories of those who suffer and fight under the most appalling circumstances; to shed light into the darkest places.
Speaking at a memorial service for fallen journalists in London in 2010, Marie noted the dangers: "We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?" she said. "Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."
But while their focus was on the combatants, and the civilians who bear the brunt of war, it's an inescapable truth that familiar faces and bylines have brought international attention to the escalating war in Syria like never before (I wrote a few weeks ago about how we were all becoming inured to the brutal videos of the casualties there).
Photographer Paul Conroy was one of the survivors of the attack that killed Remi and Marie. He, and Le Figaro reporter Edith Bouvier, are now trapped in Homs's Baba Amr neighborhood along with its terrified residents, who have been allowed neither safe passage from the area by Bashar al-Assad's troops nor any relief from daily artillery barrages for weeks. Humanitarian organizations and governments have been seeking a ceasefire to extract the journalists, and perhaps the worst of the wounded, with no positive response from Assad's government.
Conroy spoke briefly from the field hospital where he's being treated earlier today. Look at the bare walls, the simple couch that is his hospital bed, the lack of equipment for the earnest young doctor treating him and others. Listen to Mr. Conroy, and remember he isn't the story. There are tens of thousands of Syrians in a similar predicament. But listen.
In standard media accounts, the resolution is being described as an attempt to move the "red line"--the line that, if crossed by Iran, could trigger a US military strike. The Obama administration has said that what's unacceptable is for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. This resolution speaks instead of a "nuclear weapons capability." In other words, Iran shouldn't be allowed to get to a point where, should it decide to produce a nuclear weapon, it would have the wherewithal to do so."
He goes on to point out that "capability" is rather a slippery word. Iran probably is capable now to produce a nuclear bomb or two within two years if it wanted to. One interpretation of Lieberman, Graham, and Casey's resolution is that it would call for war immediately on that basis. The three are also trying to legislate against using a containment strategy in the event of a nuclear armed Iran (you know, that thing that prevented a nuclear Holocaust during the cold war). They want the Senate to resolve that it:
Strongly supports United States policy to prevent the Iranian Government from acquiring nuclear weapons capability; rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran; and urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.
That amounts to demanding immediate war with a nuclear-armed foe whose conventional forces would be helpless against the US. No negotiation, no wiggle room, no jaw jaw. Just war war. Lieberman made their intent clear in January:
"When it comes to addressing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, all options must be on the table -- except for one, and that is containment. We are confident that an overwhelming bipartisan super-majority of our colleagues will join us in passing this resolution, which will send a clear message to Iran's rulers that we are absolutely determined to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. Containment is failure, and failure cannot be an option."
That's the sort of thing that might lead to a nuclear detonation.
We don't know yet why, exactly, a group of US soldiers at Bagram Air Base were burning Qurans and other Islamic religious texts a few days ago. Ignorance? Carelessness? A group of soldiers that wanted to express contempt for the faith (a view that's far from uncommon among soldiers and marines)?
The "why" doesn't really matter though.
With hundreds of thousands of young soldiers and inexperienced officers cycling through war zones over a decade, these sorts of things are the types of things that happen from time to time in war – just as the desecration of the bodies of dead Taliban happened and will likely happen from time to time, just as a poorly-led unit enraged at the loss of a comrade carried out a massacre and will likely happen from time to time.
That these things happen in war, and undermine missions that have been framed in terms of winning over local populations, is as predictable as the rain. As is the Afghan response to the Quran building yesterday and today.
In Kabul yesterday, angry mobs gathered outside a US facility in Kabul, throwing stones, chanting death to America, and managing to set on fire a few small outbuildings and observation towers.
Today, two US soldiers were killed and four comrades wounded by an Afghan soldier serving with them, the latest in a string of killings of NATO troops by Afghans armed and trained by NATO.
Though the ISAF press operation only said the killer was "an individual wearing an Afghan National Army uniform," that boilerplate bit of epistemological doubt has become common in ISAF statements over the past year, and the killers almost always turn out to be Afghan soldiers or police – not agents in stolen uniforms who have cunningly made their way onto NATO bases or amid patrols.
The murders were likely prompted by anger over the Quran burning, as were the deaths of a half-dozen Afghans at three separate anti-US protests around the country by Afghan security forces, trying to prevent them from overrunning perimeters.
The US Embassy in Kabul is on lock-down, no one in or out, in what is often declared to be a supremely safe capital city – a little over a year ago the top NATO civilian official in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said of Kabul, "the children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York, or Glasgow."
The reality is that many Afghans, not just the Taliban and other insurgent groups, are tired of the foreign troops in their midst. Night raids on family compounds continue to offend and enrage Afghans, the occupying troops seen by many as a symbol of humiliation.
The distaste for the foreign troops in the midst of millions of Afghans means it only takes the slightest spark to generate a crisis, as the latest incident shows (NATO, the US military, and President Obama have all apologized to the Afghan people and President Hamid Karzai profusely for what they say was an unintentional error).
That was also clear last April, when a mob enraged by a Quran burning in Florida by an obscure Christian preacher overran the UN compound in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, killing seven international staff. The fury then may have been anti-American in genesis, but none of the victims were American. They were simply foreigners, and that was good enough for their killers that day.
After 10 years of war, the bonds between Afghans and NATO troops have only grown more frayed.
Afghanistan in photos: Winning hearts and minds?
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