Cultural Challenges to US in Afghanistan
The despicable anti Islam video circulated on the internet and resultant violence by extremist elements highlights the cultural challenges the United States faces across the World due to the miniscule minority within America which hardly reflects popular public sentiment which has created cleavages by misusing freedom of speech. While the violent reaction in West Asia cannot be attributed to these actions alone, for there is always an option for protesting in a dignified and non-violent way it does highlight the gap in understanding that exists called as the clash of civilizations by Samuel Huntington, between the West and the rest.
This is likely to impact US presence in a part of the World where after 12 years of campaigning American military is planning to establish a permanent presence of sorts and has a large number of troops today. Given an understanding of the criticality, President Barack Obama telephoned his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai to discuss violence that may spread from Libya and Egypt to Afghanistan and the threat to safety of American soldiers in the country particularly after the surge in Green on Blue attacks.
Fortunately the clergy in Afghanistan came up with a much matured response and asked the people to protest if necessary but in a non-violent way. The US praised the response of Afghan religious leaders, with Pentagon expressing gratification of the response, “We're gratified based on what we know now that religious leaders have appealed for non-violent protests,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told an off-camera news conference.
While the US has been pleased by the response of the Afghan clerics who asked the people to protest in a non-violent way, on the video film issue there is unlikely to be any similar relief in West Asia where the Arab countries remain on the boil. This is so due to cultural and religious distinction between the Islamic practices and preaching’s in the two regions where South Asian Islam practices the softer Barelvi or the more hard line Sunni Deobandi philosophy rather than the Salafist who are behind the current Arab riots against the US embassy and consulates. Thus while the clerics in Afghanistan have asked for non-violent protests in the country they are well aware that the public opinion may not be as incensed as for instance any act that had happened in the region.
At the same time the Taliban in Afghanistan are not averse to take advantage of this opportunity to target NATO bases or even western citizens and aid workers, precautions were naturally necessary. This became more than obvious with Taliban attack on a key base in Helmand province which also housed a member of the British Royal Family, Prince Harry having gamily joined the military mission with the UK contingent in the country.
While Afghanistan has been quiet so after the controversy over the video offensive to Islam another round of people’s protest engineered by the Taliban cannot be ruled out. The involvement of terrorists groups in such attacks has been exposed in Libya where the US ambassador lost his life in a strike clearly led by terrorists. In Afghanistan similar protests in the past has led to unrestrained violence most particularly directed at UN or NATO assets with protests assuming a violent overtone triggered in many cases by the presence of rebels. Militant groups are known to exploit such situations for their own agenda even though it is more than unlikely that many Afghans would have even seen the You Tube video.
At the same time, in the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 the United States President Barack Obama reaffirmed commitment to Afghanistan having signed a strategic partnership agreement with that country. US long term commitment to Afghanistan would be essential to ensure that it does not fall prey to the regional countries politics that has been the case in the past when the Soviets left the country in 1989. At the same time as the memories of 9/11 fade away there is some reduction in the emotional attachment to the country and the large number of US soldiers deaths has only added to the level of detachment and the need for an early exit. With Afghanistan continuing to be a major governance and security black hole while the possibility of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda coming back to power may not be envisaged in the near future, what happens by end of the decade in case the country does not receive support from outside remains to be seen for a situation wherein return of anarchy would not be farfetched thus commitment internationally and regionally is necessary.
Against this back drop these cultural fault lines will only add to the uncertainties and challenges that may face a US force that may continue in Afghanistan vulnerable to the Afghan Taliban, the public and Afghan security forces arising from such culturally diverse actions as Koran burning or anti Islam videos in America. On the whole the responsibility of social media and internet over such videos and photographs has to be highlighted even while supporting freedom of speech.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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