What burning Qurans in Afghanistan tells us

After 10 years, US troops still fail to understand the local culture, and Afghans are tired of the occupation.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghans shout anti-US slogans during a demonstration in Mehterlam, Laghman province east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 23. Afghan police on Thursday fired shots in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters who tried to break into an American military base in the country's east to vent their anger over this week's Quran burnings incident.

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. 

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