For the fourth straight day, Afghans protested in response to a US pastor burning a copy of the Quran in Florida. At least 22 people have died, including seven UN workers, as a result of the demonstrations across the country that began Friday.
While the protests seem to be dying down, they’ve left a mark on Afghanistan. The protests brought a growing anti-foreigner sentiment to the surface that may increase support for the insurgency or, at the very least, put renewed pressure on foreign forces to reduce their presence here.
Though the Taliban has definitely benefited from the ongoing fallout of the Quran burning incident, the violent reaction came from average Afghans who may or may not support the Taliban or other insurgent groups.
In speaking with Afghans about the incident, it’s surprised me how many people support the spirit of the protests. No one I’ve talked to supports the killings of the UN workers. But even well-educated, informed Afghans tell me that it’s good that people are speaking out against the desecration of the Quran.
Much of the support stems from the inability of many people here to contextualize the March 20 Quran burning. A translator who works for a fellow journalist here in Kabul did not know that Florida pastor Terry Jones was the same person who threatened to burn the Quran last September.
This led to the perception that many Americans share his beliefs, even if he heads a small church of about 30 people who have so little support that they’ve had to sell their furniture on eBay to stay afloat. Mr. Jones is now trying to sell the church property.
In a place like Afghanistan, where the vast majority of the populace is illiterate and many lack regular access to reliable news outlets, perception and rumors often become more important than facts. Now that the story of the Quran burning has spread, it almost does not matter how strongly US officials – from President Barack Obama to Gen. David Petraeus – condemn Jones’s actions. The damage has been done.
After almost 10 years of foreign troops and international aid groups, the Taliban is still a serious threat and it’s difficult to see what tens of billions of dollars of foreign aid money has bought for the country. Patience is wearing thin among many Afghans, and incidents like the Quran burning provide a vehicle for their growing anger.
Already the Taliban has shown an increasing willingness to attack soft targets, such as the Finest supermarket and the Safi Landmark which were both bombed about a month ago. Among the growing anti-foreigner sentiment, the Taliban and other insurgent groups may have an easier time getting the support of the community as they carry out these attacks, provided they direct their efforts against internationals and avoid Afghan civilian causalities.