At least a dozen people have been killed in riots that have broken out in Afghanistan over the inadvertent burning of several Korans by US soldiers at a prison complex outside of Kabul. Among the dead are two US soldiers, shot by an Afghan soldier at the US base near Kaja. President Barack Obama wrote a letter to President Karzai extending his “sincere apologies” for the incident, adding, “We will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.” For all its obsequious efforts, analysts agree that profuse apologies issued from every level of the Obama administration have done nothing to temper the outbreak of violence in the country. Some believe apologies may even inflame the situation more.
Karzai and several members of parliament have called on NATO to put the soldiers on trial. Meanwhile, following the attack on the Americans by the uniformed Afghan soldier, the Taliban called on Afghan soldiers to fire on the “infidel invaders.”
Many analysts support the president’s response, but believe it will do little or no good. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the apology was “appropriate given the sensitivity” of the matter. But GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich disagreed, saying on a campaign swing through Washington state that “there seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way and he is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States period.” He also said that it should be President Karzai doing the apologizing for the killing of US military personnel by a member of his armed forces. He added that if Karzai doesn’t say he’s sorry for the murders, “then we should say goodbye and good luck, we don’t need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn’t care.”
If it were only Obama doing the apologizing, that would make sense. As Commander-in-Chief, the president is responsible for the safety of the troops and even though humbling the US in this way is not easy to accept, with 100,000 or more troops still in Afghanistan, each and every one of them would become a target for any Afghan with a gun unless the president made some effort to placate the people and government of Afghanistan. And guns are common in Afghan households.
But the rash of apologies issued by US officials – including a missive by American and NATO Commander General John Allen and a statement of regret by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – “don’t seem to have any effect,” said Nina Shea of the conservative Hudson Institute. She said the additional apologies “just feeds the sense of grievance” of the protesters. Another analyst, Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, said that the serial apologies only help the Taliban. “They will use that to again flame their own fire,” he said. “The more they apologize, the more it’s going to inflame them.”
Shaffer also called the burning of the Korans “stupid.” Valuable intelligence may have been lost if there were indeed messages from extremists written in the texts.
Perhaps the incident was best summed up in the Lebanese English language Daily Star:
It’s one of those puzzling cases in which one doesn’t know which is worse: If the Americans knew what they were doing, it is a disaster, and if they were this careless and didn’t know what they were doing, it is also a disaster.
General Allen has promised that troops will receive additional training in the “proper handling of religious materials.” An investigation by the military is underway to determine why the Korans ended up in the burn bin in the first place.
The incident that set off the riots occurred Monday evening when guards removed several copies of the Koran and other religious texts from the prison library near Bagram air base where 2,000 prisoners are held. The Korans and other religious texts were transported to a burn bin on the air base itself where several contract laborers noticed the Korans and begged the soldiers not to burn them. According to Afghan police, some of the men reached into the oven and pulled out several copies of the Koran, most of them nearly destroyed. “I was ready to shed my blood and kill them or be killed,” said one of the laborers.
It is believed the reason the Korans were removed was because they contained “extremist messages” written in the margins. CBS reports:
The military official with knowledge of the incident said it appeared that the Qurans (Korans) and other Islamic readings were being used to fuel extremism, and that detainees at Parwan Detention Facility were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages.
It is as much a sacrilege to write in a Koran as it is to burn it – a fact that is lost on the thousands of outraged Muslims who attacked police with cries of ”Death to Foreigners” and “Down with America.”
Word of the burnings spread quickly, and by Tuesday, thousands were in the streets protesting. The demonstrations continued on Wednesday with protests in dozens of cities and towns across Afghanistan. The outrage was fueled by extremist clerics and even members of parliament, some of whom called for holy war against foreigners.
On Thursday, protesters attacked Camp Phoenix near the Kabul airport, burning tires and threatening to enter the facility. They were repulsed as helicopters dropped flares and Afghan police fired rubber bullets into the crowd. In another ominous sign, the Washington Post is reporting that many police officers in Kabul fully sympathize with the rioters. “Afghans and the world’s Muslims should rise against the foreigners. We have no patience left,” said one police officer in central Kabul. He added while nodding to his colleague, “We both will attack the foreign military people.”
The incident is being played for all it’s worth by the Taliban. The terrorists issued a statement on their website, saying the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on all the youth present in the security apparatus of the Kabul regime to fulfill their religious and national duty… by turning their guns on the foreign infidel invaders.” The Taliban has been making tentative steps toward negotiating with the Kabul government, and despite the call for violence, some analysts believe the incident won’t sidetrack the delicate diplomacy involved in trying to reconcile the government and the terrorists.
The riots are fed by fundamentalist Muslims who are playing on the people’s frustration with the occupation and several recent incidents that outraged the populace. There was the incident in January of a video being released that showed US soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters. And just last week, a NATO air strike killed 8 young Afghans – an incident that elicited a stinging statement from Kabul.
What else can the US do? “The U.S. has pretty much done all it can do,” said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation. “To a certain degree, all [the U.S.] can do now is wait for tempers to cool.” That may prove difficult. The mosques will be full on Friday and the behavior of crowds leaving the services will be closely watched. It could be the biggest and bloodiest day yet for protests. Or, tempers could indeed begin to cool and the situation could ease.
Few are betting on the latter.
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