02.27.12

Afghanistan: The Friendship That Went Up in Flames

The Quran burnings have provoked violent unrest, a suicide bombing, and outright murders. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on another victim: the U.S.-Afghan partnership.

The carnage continues. Just when the bloodletting seemed at last to be dissipating after a week of violent anti-U.S. protests, a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into the base of a NATO airbase in eastern Afghanistan. The deaths and injuries were only the latest casualties since the discovery of copies of the Quran in a burn pit at Bagram airbase, outside Kabul.

In a conservative, underdeveloped, and staunchly Muslim place like Afghanistan, it’s hard to think of anything that could arouse more outrage than the mishandling of what people regard as the literal word of God. The subsequent public fury led to the deaths of some 30 Afghans amid the protests, as well as the point-blank murders of four U.S. soldiers. And that was before the suicide bombing outside the NATO base in Jalalabad, on the busy road from Kabul to Pakistan. The blast killed nine people and wounded 19 others, including four NATO soldiers—and to dispel all doubt, a Taliban spokesman announced that it was “to avenge the desecration of the Quran by the U.S. military.”

Beyond the deaths and injuries, the Quran burnings may have damaged something even bigger: America’s partnership with Kabul. As soon as news of the burnings broke, the Taliban began calling on Afghans to rise up and urging Afghan security personnel to turn their weapons against their U.S. and other Western allies. Whether inspired or not by those calls for retribution, Afghan soldiers and civilians have repeatedly attacked American forces over the past week. An Afghan soldier shot and killed two U.S. troops last week in eastern Afghanistan, not far from today’s suicide bombing. This past Saturday, two American officers were shot in the back of the head as they sat at their desks inside Kabul’s high-security Interior Ministry. The killer fled the scene and has disappeared. And yesterday, seven more U.S. military trainers were wounded when a protestor lobbed a hand grenade into a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan.

The insurgents are reveling in the anti-American outburst. Millions of Afghans were upset by news of the Quran burnings, and then Taliban agents and militant mullahs whipped them into a fury. The instigators were able to build on the public’s resentment of other recent cultural and religious affronts, such as the viral video of U.S. soldiers urinating on the bodies of dead insurgents. One senior Taliban, a former minister in Mullah Mohammad Omar’s defunct regime, says such offenses have boosted the number of Afghans volunteering to join the insurgency. “Every time such incidents take place we have been approached by common Afghans asking how they can help to get revenge,” he says, declining to be named for security reasons. “These incidents help us explain and help people understand the cause of our jihad against the natural enemies of our religion.” The former minister says he knows the identity of the suicide bomber who hit the Jalalabad airfield today. “His blood was hot with anger,” the former minister says. “He was so motivated, he did not need much training to carry out his mission.”

High-ranking Afghan officials are dismayed and saddened by the damage that has been done to the Afghan-U.S. partnership. “We have been helped, even saved, by the U.S. forces who have died in large numbers and the U.S. tax money that has flowed in,” says a senior Afghan official who does not want to be named. “But these incidents erase the positive American image that had been built up.”

The former minister says he knows the identity of the suicide bomber. “His blood was hot with anger,” the former minister says. “He was so motivated, he did not need much training to carry out his mission.”

The harm goes far beyond America’s image. The alliance needs to be based on friendship and trust. As U.S. combat forces gradually withdraw from Afghanistan in the coming two years, the Americans who stay behind will be relying more heavily than ever on the Afghan officers and soldiers they have trained. The new mission has already begun: to advise and mentor the Afghan security forces, enabling them to stand on their own against the insurgents with a minimum of American support. Smaller groups of U.S. advisers and trainers will be stationed among their Afghan counterparts in the field, leaving them potentially vulnerable to angry or frustrated Afghan troops.

And that’s a big problem. Even before the Quran burnings, U.S. and NATO officers were concerned by the cultural and personal tensions that were building between foreign advisers and Afghan soldiers and police. There had been a worrisome number of incidents in which Afghans in uniform turned their weapons against their Western allies, and the shootings demonstrated clearly how tense the partnership was becoming in the field. Soldiers in combat have to depend on each other completely: they can’t afford to keep looking over their shoulders and worrying about the reliability of the men beside them. In the months ahead, repairing that tattered sense of trust may prove to be even tougher than the fight against the Taliban.