Searching for Meaning in the Afghan Riots

For Gen. David Petraeus, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Only two weeks after his soft-shoe testimony on the progress of the war in Afghanistan, 22 people are killed in riots and demonstrations over the staged burning of a Quran by Florida pastor Terry Jones. Ironically, Jones burned the Muslim holy book on March 20, about the same time Petraeus was wrapping up his sales pitch on Capitol Hill, though it received no real press until more than a week later, when the riots began April 1 in Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern city that has been hailed in the past as one of the safest in the country.

Incidentally, it wasn’t until Afghan president and U.S. “partner” Hamid Karzai started fanning the flames by issuing a press release on March 24 condemning Jones’ actions as a “crime against a religion and entire Muslim ummah [community],”and said the U.S. and UN should “bring to justice the perpetrators,” that things started to rage. He also gave a speech mouthing similar exhortations on March 31.

A day later, university students in Mazar-i-Sharif went through with a planned street protest against the book-burning. Reports now suggest that current and even former Taliban who had supposedly switched loyalties to work with the U.S. were ultimately responsible, along with extremist mullahs and sympathizers in the city, for whipping up the largely peaceful crowd, which eventually overran the local UN compound there, killing three UN staff members and four Nepalese guards. Five Afghan civilians were killed when local police fired on the crowd and at least twenty more were wounded.

It was the first in five straight days of demonstrations and rioting in several population centers across Afghanistan, including volatile Kandahar in the south—where 10 more people died on April 2—and the capital city of Kabul. One egregious act by a media-hungry Gainesville pastor with a flock of thirty has presumably led to what is emerging as a very public backlash against the West and its occupying forces, evidence by the routine burning of the American flag and of President Obama in effigy during the protests. As described in The New York Times, the speeches made by the mullahs in Mazar-i-Sharif just before the brutal attack on the UN workers not only condemned the desecration of the Quran, but called “for jihad and death for infidels and Jews.”

Though the news was naturally subsumed by other headlines in the U.S.—Libya, the budget battle on Capitol Hill (the mainstream media typically won’t focus on more than two or three big headlines at a time)—one got the sense the press was fairly stunned by the ferocity of the violence against the UN workers and the speed at which it all had happened. It had gotten spanked for giving Jones too much airtime when he had merely threatened to burn the Quran last summer. Now that he had actually gone through with it and is serving as the gasoline with which every dry, brittle branch of progress in Afghanistan is seeming to catch fire, the mainstream media appears reticent at best to give it the full treatment—like, how did such a small man do such big damage in a place where we are supposedly making “progress”?

So, the violence has been tamped down, for now. Peaceful demonstrations are continuing, however, the latest in Khost, an eastern city near the border with Pakistan, where several hundred university students marched on Saturday, demanding in signs written in English, that the U.S. “bring to justice that infidel who burned and desecrated our holy book.”

The protests have certainly exposed a number of critical weaknesses in what Petraeus just described a month ago as the war’s “upward trajectory” in favor of the U.S. and its allies on the ground. Foremost, it underscores the military’s lack of control over the shifting dynamics there. The attack in Mazar came within 10 days of an announcement that security in the city, along with several other provinces and towns, would start to “transition” to Afghan from ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) control this summer.

Petraeus reportedly visited Mazar after the attack and tried to dismiss fears that his Afghan security partners were not ready. “We’ve looked hard at that and that is not the case,” he told reporters in Kabul. “Our sense is that individuals likely from outside the area… took advantage of the situation, hijacked it, an emotionally charged moment, and the result was terrible violence.”

But as The New York Times reported Saturday, the provocateurs and perpetrators were hardly “outsiders” but local Mullahs, Taliban sympathizers, even guys the U.S. thought had renounced the Taliban and were now working with them. Taken together, they all conspire to undercut the general’s carefully crafted narrative—that the enemy is on the run.

Petraeus and his Muddy Fine Line

The thrust of Petraeus’ testimony before Congress last month was that the Afghans are closer than ever to taking control over their own country. The resources and training, as well as security gains by U.S. forces, are finally paying off:

“The hard-fought achievements in 2010 and early 2011 have enabled the Joint Afghan-NATO Transition Board to recommend initiation this spring of transition to Afghan lead in several provinces,” Petraeus testified. But there is always a caveat:

“Our core objective is, of course, ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. Achieving that objective requires that we help Afghanistan develop sufficient capabilities to secure and govern itself. And that effort requires the execution of the comprehensive civil-military effort on which we are now embarked.”

His message strategy here is clear. He must convince the purse-string holders that there is enough progress happening so they feel compelled to give him more money to go forward on his own terms. It is no secret that the Pentagon is engaged in an active battle of wills with the White House over the July deadline for withdrawal, particularly over the number of troops that will be sent home. It’s in his interest to convince the congress that a big withdrawal would be detrimental to the future success of the mission, while at the same time highlighting the positive (no matter how arguable) so that members don’t lose faith, or worse, succumb to American public opinion, which is now full-on against continuing the occupation.

It’s a fine line, and the recent protests and killings have muddied it more than a little.

These recent developments suggest quite graphically that the Taliban has more influence than Petraeus and his generals have let on, not to mention that it’s been the most violent winter ever for our troops in Afghanistan. Reports that non-Taliban Afghans are now engaged in violent anti-American demonstrations that are being broadcast all over the world make our 10-year campaign there feel more futile by the day.

Tom Peter, Afghanistan correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, suggests the impact will be more than fleeting:

While the protests seem to be dying down, they’ve left a mark on Afghanistan. The protests brought a growing anti-foreigner sentiment to the surface that may increase support for the insurgency or, at the very least, put renewed pressure on foreign forces to reduce their presence here.

IPS reporter and regular Gareth Porter tells us,there is nothing new about anti-American protests over desecration of the Quran…you can find examples of similar demonstrations in past years” merely by combing the WikiLeaks “Afghan War Diary.” The media up to now has just chosen to ignore it. True, but this time Karzai got involved in a big way, which forced responses from President Obama and Gen. Petraeus. Now there seems to be a renewed interest in what many devoted Afghan Muslims are saying and listening to. According to a Reuters report on Sunday, they aren’t exactly praying for our Godspeed:

Enayatullah Balegh is a professor at Kabul University and preaches on Fridays in the largest mosque in central Kabul, where he advocates jihad, or holy war, against foreigners who desecrate Islam.

After a fundamentalist U.S. pastor presided over the burning of a copy of the Koran last month, there has been a growing perception among ordinary people that many of the foreigners in Afghanistan belong in just one category: the infidels. …

“I tell my students to wage jihad against all foreigners who desecrate our religious values. We have had enough.”

Protests in Kabul against the Koran-burning have not become violent but there are many other mullahs in the overcrowded capital whose sermons are filled with criticism of the foreigners fighting and working in Afghanistan.

Raising an effective Afghan Army to fight the Taliban has been difficult enough. Never knowing what spark is going to set the powder keg off, where and on whom, is another. The more flag burnings and signs demanding our withdrawal they see, the more restless and resentful the American people become over our continued obligations there.

“In deciding to intervene with large numbers of general purpose forces from the US and Europe, we created conditions leading to mutual hatred and suspicion between the Muslim Peoples in Afghanistan and Iraq and our unwanted foreign presence,” said retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor in an email to “It is stupid and it should end.”

What Is Karzai Up To?

Ostensibly, that is what Karzai wants, too, for it to end. At least he’s said as much in recent weeks, urging NATO in an emotional speech to “stop their operations in our land,” after the accidental deaths of nine children in a recent NATO air strike.

At least one American source of mine working in Kabul suggests the public condemnation of Jones and the Quran burning was calculated to gain trust with members of the Taliban with whom Karzai is interested in negotiating an eventual peace deal (this could diverge with what the U.S. military wants, which is to presumably hold off on talks until coalition forces are in a greater position of strength).

“Karzai is pandering to the masses and trying to bring the Taliban in from the cold—certain elements. More and more Afghans I’m finding are beginning to warm to Karzai and it has nothing to do with anti-Americanism,” my source in Kabul insisted. “It has to do with a tacit understanding that if there’s to be peace, then it must be structured around certain groups like Haqqani coming into the government.”

“I think Karzai has been laying the groundwork for reconciliation with the Taliban for years. He knows they will continue to constitute the strongest and most coherent organization in the country as NATO begins its exodus,” added Porter, who suggested last month in a report that the military may be purposefully scuttling high-level talks by building an indefinite troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 anyway.

The military has instead talked up “reintegrating” the Taliban, or really, using carrots to bring them over to their side, much like the Sunni “Sons of Iraq,” who have been credited with turning the tide against al Qaeda in Iraq. The Afghan efforts have had mixed results at best—if the April 9 New York Times article was correct, some of those “reintegrated Taliban” may have been responsible for the murder of our UN peacekeepers.

Discerning motive behind Karzai’s behavior is speculative of course. But it’s clear that second biggest weakness the riots have exposed—or rather, reaffirmed in bold primary colors—is the slippery nature of the Afghan president, and his tenuous, awkward relationship with Washington, which has certainly deteriorated under the Obama Administration. Both seem to be working at cross-purposes most of the time, and the riots in Mazar seem to be the latest, greatest example of Karzai pushing Washington’s buttons. And push it did.

From Pakistan scholar Christine Fair:

It is very difficult not to conclude that Karzai chose to pursue a path of deadly controversy to demonstrate his strategic independence from the very country that continues to pay the vast majority of all of his bills while his coterie of supporters loot his country’s coffers. According to the recently downsized U.S. defense budget, American taxpayers will still pay about $300 million per day for the military effort in Afghanistan alone. For all operations in the country, the United States is expected to spend about $17 billion in Fiscal Year 2011 alone. …

At some point, we need to ask how it is possible to justify squandering such life and treasure on Karzai when he time and time again undermines his own and our interests. How can we continue to support a man who is willing to stoke the flames of violence in his own country for his own, deeply personal political gains.

This would seem to be the crux of the situation. Events like the Mazar murders only underscore our lack of control—and maybe that is exactly what Karzai was up to when he fanned those flames. But considering the millions of dollars a day, not to mention the blood spilled on both sides, this is a game that Americans are increasingly unwilling to play, no matter what Gen. Petraeus might be selling on Capitol Hill.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.