Why did Karzai spotlight Terry Jones's Quran burning?

Although US and international officials have placed the blame for this week's deadly Afghanistan protests squarely on Florida pastor Terry Jones for burning a Quran, many also blame Afghan President Hamid Karzai for spotlighting the issue.

Afghans burn an effigy during a protest over US pastor Terry Jones's burning of the Quran, on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway in Afghanistan on April 5.

The dust is settling after five straight days of deadly protests in Afghanistan over US pastor Terry Jones's burning of the Quran, but the political fallout could be just beginning.

There is a growing sense among a number of diplomats here that the demonstrations were provoked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Nearly two weeks passed without incident after Mr. Jones and his congregation of about 30 followers burned a Quran in Florida on March 20.

Then, on March 31, President Karzai made a speech condemning Mr. Jones and calling for his arrest. A day later, protesters stormed the UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif, killing seven foreign employees and triggering demonstrations across Afghanistan that left a total of 22 people dead and scores injured.

Although US and international officials have placed the blame squarely on Jones in public statements, many are beginning to question why Karzai drew attention to the Jones incident at all. While it’s unlikely that he intended to spark such violent protests, his recent history of anti-Western remarks and actions indicate that he may have wanted to use the incident to vent his frustration with the continued foreign presence in Afghanistan.

“Karzai seems to veer between being dependent on the international presence and a real sense resentment and powerlessness. He tends to come out with public statements that make clear the degree of resentment that he feels,” says Stephen Carter, an independent policy analyst in Kabul. “In this particular case, he could have refrained from making a statement and acted in a way that would have made this particular outcome less likely, but I don’t think it was a deliberate conspiracy. I think he was voicing frustrations that he genuinely feels.”

Since the outbreak of violence on Friday, Karzai has formed two committees to investigate the most deadly protests that occurred in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the southern city of Kandahar.

According to remarks by his spokesman, Karzai’s intent in speaking out against the Quran burning came from a sense of moral obligation to stand up against an act deemed deeply offensive to most Afghans.

However, many observers remain skeptical, citing the Afghan president's policies on everything from private security companies to the long-term presence of international forces as evidence of a growing antiforeigner sentiment over the past few years. Most recently, Karzai issued several harsh remarks following NATO-caused civilian causalities.

One former Afghan official says that numerous issues regarding the foreign presence “have been manipulated in a manner that would only provoke anti-American sentiments.”

Still, after five days of demonstrations, most observers say the protests are about much more than the burning of the Quran. The same antiforeign sentiment that may have led Karzai to speak out against Jones in the first place, could be largely responsible for fueling protests for nearly a week.

“When it comes to this specific issue [of Quran burning protests], I don’t really think that one mention by the president was the cause of so much outrageous demonstrations marked by an unacceptable level of violence. I think that’s been building up for some time,” says the former Afghan official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.

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