America's hopes of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people have suffered yet another blow.
Plans by NATO personnel to burn Qurans at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul have set off violent protests, with at least 1,000 demonstrators throwing stones and calling for US and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan.
That burning Qurans might anger Afghans has been made pretty clear before: In 2010 a US evangelical pastor, Rev. Terry Jones, threatened to burn Qurans outside his Florida church, and a year later, when followers of that US pastor actually carried out the threat. Eleven United Nations personnel were massacred in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif in April 2011, after protestors broke into their compound, apparently seeking revenge for the Reverend Jones’s actions. A separate protest in the southern city of Kandahar at the time left nine people dead and dozens injured.
On Tuesday, the NATO commander, Gen. John R. Allen, released a statement apologizing for the planned burning, saying it was not intentional according to The New York Times:
“ISAF personnel at Bagram Air Base improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Korans,” the statement said.
“When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities.”
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The incident comes at a delicate time in Afghanistan, as the US begins a long three-year process of drawing down its combat forces, and as negotiations between the US government and the Taliban’s senior leadership seems almost certain to begin.
America’s presence in Afghanistan – initially welcomed by Afghans because of expectations that America would rebuild the country – has now begun to grate many Afghans. While American allies have indeed rebuilt roads, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure, government corruption and rising insecurity have grown much worse in recent years. Relations between the US government and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, too, have also become strained.
In Dec. 2010, a public opinion poll commissioned by Washington Post, ABC, the BBC, and Germany’s ARD news agency, found that only 36 percent of Afghans had a “somewhat favorable” view of American troops, and a full 55 percent wanted US troops to pull out. While only 9 percent of respondents at the time would have liked to see the Taliban form part of the Afghan government, more than 73 percent said they thought it was time to negotiate with the insurgents and let the country get on with its future.
In an indication of how seriously NATO commanders take any perceived disrespect to the Islamic holy book, General Allen’s apology was swift and appeared contrite. News of the incident initially emerged from Bagram Air Base itself, after several Afghan employees at the base say they saw Qurans being offloaded at the base’s incineration pit and raised their concerns.
It's not clear why NATO had possession of Qurans in the first place, but it is common practice among Western diplomats and military personnel in Afghanistan to give Qurans to Afghan village elders or to local religious authorities as a sign of respect.
Any hint that Western forces are showing the holy book of Islam disrespect could deepen resentment over their presence in Afghanistan.