The protests over inadvertent burning of the holy Koran by US soldiers are entering the second week now and it is also anticipated that these may spread may be even to other parts of the World. With two US officers killed in the interior ministry in Kabul by an Afghan colleague there is already a major hue and cry in America over the logic of continuing to sacrifice blood of young men when response from the ground is not favourable. However by pulling out now as some nations are seemingly doing in some what desperate mood the gains made over the past decade or so will be lost and the international community will be playing into the hands of the Taliban. The staying the course despite the setbacks is the way ahead given that counter insurgency can be best described in colloquial terms as a, “mugs game”.
Fortunately the US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have seen through this game and are jointly resisting pressure from the internal lobby for blaming and shaming the other coalition partner. What the detractors of the leaders are also forgetting is that a large number of US as well as Afghan soldiers are very dutifully carrying out the task of facing the mass upsurge of violence placing things in a better perspective than arm chair analysts on Afghanistan are. A brief review of the events would place things in perspective.
Afghan protests erupted over Quran ‘burning’ inadvertently as per the American command in Bagram. Seeing the portends, President Barack Obama was prompt in offering an apology to Afghanistan for the sad and most avoidable event. Yet the sentiments of Afghans and Muslims in the region were underestimated leading to continued protests. A wider apology was offered when a senior Pentagon official apologized to Washington-area Muslim promising that all 140,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan are being retrained in the handling of religious materials. President Karzai on his part has also called for calm and things are expected to cool down in a few days. Yet there has been a major hue and cry in the United States including adverse comments on the apology rendered by the President.
These detractors seem to ignore the fact that mishandling religious scriptures is an extremely sensitive and emotive issue in Afghanistan particularly the Koran thus the incident allegedly on Bagram air base where reports of burning of large number of religious scriptures has been reported is likely to remain a hot button issue in the country over unless NATO comes up with an appropriate response launched through credible investigations preferably also including the Afghan leadership as well. The Taliban is not unknown to take advantage of such situations thereby using public protests to intensify the ill feeling against the Americans in general. This also denotes the necessity for greater security in Af Pak hotspots thereby ensuring that rebels are not able to use this as a plea to launch attacks against ISAF forces or foreign aid and development agencies including the UN as has been happening some times in the past.
The challenge of meeting protests due to burning of the Koran is another dimension which is apparently likely to mount in the days ahead as the anger is bursting on the streets and may spread to other countries. Such senseless acts do great harm to the overall good that NATO and the American forces have jointly done to Afghanistan over the past decade or so and thus will have to be effectively contained in the future through detailed education of troops who may be on rotation and eliminating some who may have preferential bias. Thus there is anger even in rational non Muslims in other parts of the World as much as there is in Afghanistan indicating how this act is resented almost universally.
The call by the Gen John Allen for calm has been reiterated by Afghan President who after initially rousing the people by blaming the US for burning of Koran at Bagram should reduce the level of agitation in the country which has spread from Kabul to other areas. The ISAF commander has assured a full enquiry which is expected to be free and fair. With President Barack Obama also appealing for calm and apologizing the protests should die down in the days ahead but have already taken a heavy toll of locals who have been protesting and also of the image of the US which has been low due to such incidents. Coming as this does after the pictures of marines urinating over bodies of dead Taliban, the US commanders would have to take some stringent checks to ensure that these incidents are not repeated for there is growing resentment due to such issues not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world.
Expanding the space for empathy with the Muslims across the World the interventions in Washington where a special sermon of apology was held which was attended by Pentagon officials should add to the overall momentum of expression of remorse. This will have to be given extensive publicity to ensure that the seething anger against the incident is cooled over a period. There is also a danger of this spreading in more parts of the World as at present it has already spread to Pakistan and South Asia. Thus the moves undertaken by Americans should also supplement the apology by the President Obama himself as well as the ISAF Chief.
What ever be the case there is no option for the US to pull out of Afghanistan and abandon the gains made in the past decade as some observers have recommended. Thus if staying the course is the way ahead a joint strategy with the Afghan government and the Army despite the mutual mistrust would have to be build up in the days ahead.