The explosion of national anger in Afghanistan after the revelation that U.S. soldiers dumped and burned copies of the Quran in an incineration pit has an uncanny familiarity with the history of previous foreign occupations of the country. Despite the ceaseless official media campaign through the decade of the U.S.-led war to convince us how well things were going for NATO, the battle for the hearts and minds in Afghanistan has not been won. Dozens of Afghans have been killed in violent demonstrations across the country.
Relations between foreign forces and civilians on one hand, and the Afghan population on the other, have sunk to a new low. The killings of two senior American military officers, deployed as “advisors” in the interior ministry, by an Afghan intelligence officer prompted NATO member-states to withdraw their “advisors” from all Afghan ministries and offices, for no one was deemed to be safe. Extraordinary scenes of public defiance looked so threatening that, in Washington, President Obama had to issue an apology. In Afghanistan, the U.S. commander Gen. John Allen apologized repeatedly and profusely.
There are those in Washington who will say it is easy for critics to deride the “achievements.” The truth is that any military venture is ultimately judged by its final outcome. As President Obama prepares to end the Afghan venture launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, a decade ago, these events in early 2012 remind us of the chaos surrounding the 1989 Soviet military retreat.
What will follow is anybody’s guess, but the instinct of many in touch with Afghanistan will be to pray. The burning of the Quran at Bagram Air Base, once a Soviet airfield when the Communist superpower occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, was described by a BBC correspondent as NATO’s tipping point in the country.
The situation had been in the making almost from the beginning since the October 2001 invasion. The American military never understood that, in a country as impoverished but as rich in history and culture as Afghanistan, individual and national honor is the greatest asset. The failure to recognize this is particularly unfortunate for the United States, where so many politicians and those associated with the military-industrial complex would not stop talking about their honor and religious beliefs.
Is this failure down to the blindness of hubris? Or a disturbing level of prejudice against Muslims and Islam permeating certain sections of society and military? Is this the reckless instinct of a boyish mentality? Or a desperate method of finding a moment of laughter and entertainment in a highly stressful environment. Is it because of lack of training? Or no training is enough when irrationality rules human minds.
Acts such as the recent desecration of dead Afghan bodies by American marines urinating on them, and filming the episode, raise these awful but unavoidable questions. We have seen Abu Ghraib pictures of gross abuse of Iraqi prisoners before, and numerous other accounts are in the public domain. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has been vocal in his condemnation of such episodes as they occur with regular frequency. But for most ordinary Afghans apologies have become meaningless. It is difficult to think of anything more offensive than what was done to the dead bodies, and to the Quran, in a deeply religious country. Surely, professional soldiers from the United States, where religious roots are deep, should know better.
For more than a decade, the official version of the military intervention in Afghanistan focused on claims that the war aim was to defeat the Taliban, because first and foremost they were al Qaeda enablers and enemies of the Afghan people; that Western powers were friends and respecters of Islam and the Afghan population; that the United States would never again make the mistake of turning its back on Afghanistan as happened in the early 1990s.
The credibility of each of these claims is seriously wounded today. The Obama administration is moving toward a withdrawal by the end of 2014. His military surge of 2009 has failed to overcome the Afghan resistance. And despite hearing many apologies, Afghans are not persuaded that foreign forces understand or respect their culture and sensitivities. The burning of the Quran was indeed the last straw.
The consequences of the episode go beyond the withdrawal of American “advisors” from Afghan ministries and other government offices. Britain, France and Germany are among those NATO powers who have followed. Cooperation between the Afghan government, such as it was, and the international forces deployed there has become more tricky. The BBC correspondent, Andrew North, reported there being “quiet fury” within the Afghan government with the Americans for their “brainless” behavior.
Other foreign military contingents are weary. The United Kingdom has signed a separate agreement with Kazakhstan, so British tanks and other military hardware leave Afghanistan via Kazakh territory when UK troops withdraw. More deals with former Central Asian republics may be in the offing. And in a strange move given the reality of military balance in the country, the Americans have demanded that the Afghan government protect U.S. troops.