Koran burning provokes fury at U.S. troops

Eric Ruder reports on the latest challenge to the NATO occupation of Afghanistan and the implications for the Obama administration's strategy in Central Asia.

Afghans assemble in a mass protest in Ghani KhailAfghans assemble in a mass protest in Ghani Khail

A WEEK of furious protests at the burning of the Koran, Islam's holy book, by U.S. soldiers is shaking Afghanistan. From Herat in western Afghanistan to Jalalabad in the east, huge crowds marched on NATO military outposts and set fire to NATO vehicles.

Two high-ranking U.S. officers--a major and a colonel--were shot and killed inside Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, prompting NATO to recall all staff working at government buildings in and around Kabul. So far, about 40 people, including half a dozen U.S. soldiers, have been killed in violence stemming from the protests, and dozens more have been wounded.

The revolt began after Afghan workers at the American military's Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, discovered that U.S. troops had thrown copies of the Koran into a pit of burning trash. This isn't the first time that Koran burnings sparked nationwide protests in Afghanistan. Demonstrations followed allegations in 2009 that U.S. soldiers burned the Koran in Wardak province, and again in 2011, when the bigoted pastor of a Florida church burned the Koran.

At the Jalalabad Air Base, a massive car bomb killed nine Afghans and wounded four NATO personnel as people arrived for work on the morning of February 27. One day earlier, Afghan protesters outside a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan threw a grenade that wounded six U.S. troops. In Kunduz, protesters stormed a United Nations office, and in the northern province of Samangan, once considered relatively calm, American, French and Norwegian military installations came under assault. In Herat, 500 people tried to storm the U.S. consulate there.

But the ability of a gunman to penetrate a high-security room inside the Interior Ministry, kill two U.S. officers and then escape created a further sense of alarm in Washington by providing a stark illustration of the limits of the U.S. strategy of advising and training Afghan security and police. According to the New York Times:

Despite an American-led training effort that has spanned years and cost tens of billions of dollars, the Afghan security forces are still widely seen as riddled with dangerously unreliable soldiers and police officers. The distrust has only deepened as a pattern of attacks by Afghan security forces on American and NATO service members, beginning years ago, has worsened over the past few days...

The United States now has what one senior American official said was "almost no margin of error" in trying to achieve even limited goals in Afghanistan after a series of crises that have stirred resentment.

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IN AN unsuccessful attempt to dampen the rage, President Barack Obama issued a letter of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, asking the people of Afghanistan "to accept my deepest apologies."

But even this minimal expression of regret was enough to send Republican presidential contenders into tirades against Obama. Rick Santorum called the apology "unacceptable" and said that it "shows weakness" on the part of the U.S.

Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich laced his complaints about the apology with a racist arrogance, hinting at the need to consider withdrawal. "There are some problems where you have to say, 'You know, you are going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life,'" Gingrich said at a Republican luncheon.

The Obama administration's reply to Republican critics largely accepted these terms of the debate. According to Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, "[The president] does not want American troops to be in Afghanistan any longer, not a day longer than they need to be to complete this mission...[It] is a policy that is very clear-eyed about what our objectives are, and what can be achieved in Afghanistan."

The protests sweeping across Afghanistan have also revealed growing fissures in the ranks of NATO forces. According to the New York Times:

After German soldiers were pelted with stones by an angry crowd in Takhar Province, in northern Afghanistan, the German military decided to withdraw its soldiers from a small base there several weeks earlier than planned. The base had just 50 soldiers, so the withdrawal will have little impact, but the early departure appeared symbolic of a growing disengagement by members of the NATO coalition. France announced last month that it would bring home its combat troops in 2013, a year earlier than expected.

The fury of Afghan protesters and the crumbling consensus among NATO allies compelled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reassert the U.S. strategy and insist there is still light flickering at the end of the tunnel:

This is not an endless commitment that will take lives far into the future...But we have both made progress on the principal reason we were there--security. Because of our platform and our presence in Afghanistan, we've been able to target terrorists, particularly top al-Qaeda operatives, including [Osama] bin Laden, in their safe havens. And we have made progress in helping the Afghan people.

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BUT THE Obama administration's claim that the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan has, despite various challenges, been more or less successful is precisely what's being questioned--from the protests in Afghanistan to within the U.S. military itself.

Just last month, a report by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, which was leaked to the media, condemned such "rosy assessments" by the administration and its spokespeople as "misleading, significantly skewed or completely inaccurate." According to Davis:

Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable. This deception has damaged America's credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.

Clinton's assertion that "we have made progress in helping the Afghan people" is especially brazen. Consider the words of Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman elected to parliament who was suspended after she continued to speak out against the U.S./NATO occupation. In 2009, she said:

[A]fter September 11, the U.S. government threw us from the frying pan into the fire. Over the last eight years, the U.S., under the banner of women's rights and human rights, has occupied my country, and millions of men and women have suffered from injustice, insecurity, corruption, joblessness, poverty, etc.

But women have suffered more--for them, it is almost as if the Taliban was still in power. After the war, the U.S. brought to power these misogynist warlords called the Northern Alliance, who are just like the Taliban. These were the same people who ruled between 1992 and 1996, and they attacked women's rights and human rights. This time, wearing suits and ties, they have again come into power with the help of the U.S. That's why today's situation for women is worse, especially in many of the provinces.

Further evidence of the fact that most Afghans don't think the U.S. is "helping the Afghan people" is the longstanding trend of Afghan police and security forces killing their supposed NATO mentors. Antiwar journalists Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse called this trend "historically unprecedented in the modern era":

At least 36 U.S. and NATO troops have died in this fashion in the past year. Since 2007, there have been at least 47 such attacks. These have been regularly dismissed as "isolated incidents" of minimal significance by U.S. and NATO officials and, unbelievably enough, are still being publicly treated that way.

Yet not in Iraq, nor during the Vietnam War, nor the Korean conflict, nor even during the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the 20th century were there similar examples of what once would have been called "native troops" turning on those training, paying for and employing them. You would perhaps have to go back to the Sepoy Rebellion, a revolt by Indian troops against their British officers in 1857, for anything comparable.

Of course, though U.S. officials talk about withdrawing as soon as "the mission is accomplished," their first choice is to establish a long-term presence in Afghanistan as part of the larger agenda of projecting U.S. imperial power in Central Asia, which the Obama administration in particular views as vital to U.S. interests. Afghanistan sits among China, Russia and Iran, and U.S. war planners would covet a "forward operating base" in the heart of this strategically vital area.

That's why, while U.S. officials say troops will be withdrawn by 2014, the military is continuing to build military installations with a much longer expiration date. "Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years," said Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Bagram Office. "We're transitioning...into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base...The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins." Similar projects to expand and reinforce U.S. bases are underway throughout the country.

But the rising tide of resistance may dash U.S. plans for a permanent presence in Afghanistan, as Engelhardt and Turse explain:

With even some members of the Afghan parliament now calling for jihad against Washington and its coalition allies, radical change is in the air. The American position is visibly crumbling. "Winning" is a distant, long-faded fantasy, defeat a rising reality.

Despite its massive firepower and staggering base structure in Afghanistan, actual power is visibly slipping away from the United States. American officials are already talking about not panicking (which indicates that panic is indeed in the air). And in an election year, with the Obama administration's options desperately limited and what goals it had fast disappearing, it can only brace itself and hope to limp through until November 2012.

The end game in Afghanistan has, it seems, come into view, and after all these fruitless, bloody years, it couldn't be sadder. Saddest of all, so much of the blood spilled has been for purposes, if they ever made any sense, that have long since disappeared into the fog of history.