October 27, 2009

Awaiting the Spark

They came with rage, signs, and effigies of President Obama. Hundreds of Afghans descended on Kabul to protest the burning of a Quran by ISAF forces. All for nothing, insists US spokeswoman Captain Elizabeth Mathias.

"We did not burn a Quran,” she corrected. “It is unfortunate that the protesters believe a Taliban rumor.”

Mathias described an investigation clearing the ISAF of all rumors, stating that no forces were in the area at the recorded time of the incident. Mohammad Alim Fadayee, spokesman for the Wardak governor, and Mullah Qari, an ANA official, relayed this message to the people.

“Dear brothers, recently, the incident of burning of the Quran that happened in Kowte Ashrow, it was the actions of the enemies of Afghanistan and Islam for their private purposes," Qari said. "The enemies of Afghanistan are trying to make people go against the government in order to start riots.”

And start riots they did. Blocking road, protesters chanted death to America and Israel, and rock-throwing gave way to physical altercation. Shots were fired. Many complained of heavy-handed police. Sayed Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, Kabul’s criminal investigation police chief, told AFP that police only aimed their guns in the air, but a doctor at Ibn Sina hospital said at least three men suffering from bullet wounds had been admitted.

Sherullah, a teenager, said from his hospital bed, “Police fired at the crowd, one bullet hit me. I was closing my shop at the time. They (policemen) were just firing. They were firing at the people.”

"We were demonstrating, we wanted to protest the burning of Koran by the foreign forces but the police came and started beating us,” a young man, refusing to give his name, said from the back of a police vehicle. Another man repeated, "They beat us up, they fired at the people."

At times propaganda can become all-powerful.

American officials are painfully learning that rumors are unstoppable when a sizable segment of the population agrees with them. Many people won’t believe the Taliban, but many will out of opposition to foreign forces. People don’t have to like the Taliban to dislike America, and this protest wouldn’t have occurred without local resentment. They're protesting America itself, not just a rumor.

Captain Mathias can blame the Taliban, but America is to blame for creating the environment. Rather than a "few bad apples" spoiling the crop, Afghanistan is dry brush awaiting a spark.

Although US and ISAF officials can’t be trusted to speak truthfully, assume that the Taliban started the Quran rumor. A cost-free attack allowed them to target President Obama himself. Bullets and IED’s nibble away at him domestically, but his burning effigy in a Kabul square brings him into the Afghan battlefield, then spits him back into the global media. A brilliant attack.

The protest in Kabul may be more than it seems too. Mathias and Afghan officials attributed it to the rumor, but the protest was reportedly well-organized by students and in conjunction with another protest across the city. Haroun Mir, head of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies, doubted they were “spontaneous eruptions of anger.”

“Getting people onto the streets in Afghanistan is very difficult, it takes quite some organizing, especially two days in a row,” he said. “Someone wants to send a message to the Afghan government and to coalition forces in Afghanistan. People in Kabul have always been in favor of the coalition presence in Afghanistan. So this is not spontaneous by Kabuli people.”

That someone could be the Taliban, starting rumors in the countryside then organizing protests in the capital through its student followers. Mir speculated, “If it continues for a few more days we will see that it is not spontaneous and there is some political agenda behind it. And then we will have a clearer idea of who is behind it and what political signal they want to send.”

The signal is clear - a burning President Obama.

The Taliban has scored a lopsided victory. Foreign assurances and investigations lose their power when people fundamentally oppose foreign influence. Captain Mathias lamented America’s inability to effectively counter enemy propaganda with a tinge of defeatism. Dead US soldiers stay in the news for a minute, but protests and their propaganda direct a firestorm towards the highest political targets. Not a penny is required.

American officials demonize in public, but they might secretly marvel at the Taliban's efficiency.

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