February 22, 2012

Quran Sparks: From Butterflies to Chaos

Social instability is aptly compared to wildfire due to their chaotic similarities and a binding reaction to order. While the embers of social unrest are known to spread beyond established predictions, outpacing the government’s response, chaos theory relies on predetermined conditions to predict undetermined outcomes.

Political and social unrest naturally manifests from a dry environment - and Afghanistan is scorching.

On Monday night several U.S. soldiers at Bagram Airbase transported a load of garbage for incineration, a package that included 60-70 books used by detainees at the adjacent Parwan Detention Facility. At some point five Afghan workers assisting in the task noticed between 4 and 15 Qurans in the burning pile, retrieved them and went to visit provincial chief Ahmad Zaki Zahed. U.S. officials reacted with immediacy, issuing numerous apologies on Tuesday and pledging to educate all coalition forces on the proper handling of religious texts.

They were already too late. Detailed information spread through local mosques by Tuesday morning, and the fire from Bagram’s pits is now jumping down Afghanistan's dusty streets. Two days of multi-provincial protests have left at least seven people dead and dozens more injured, most at the hands of Afghan security forces (four in Parwan province and one each in Kabul, Jalalabad and Logar). The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is also lock-downed until further notice, citing past instances of anti-American violence.

U.S. officials are playing every card in their rhetorical deck to minimize Afghanistan’s latest outbreak of political unrest. Both the White House and NATO have apologized profusely in comparison to the scripted, conditional regret that often accompanies civilian casualties. U.S. General John Allen, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, thanked the local Afghans "who helped us identify the error, and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action. We are thoroughly investigating the incident and are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again.”

After meeting with President Hamid Karzai in a display of remorse, the U.S. Embassy quoted Allen as saying,"We've been dying alongside the Afghans for a long time because we believe in them, and we want to give them a bright future."

Unfortunately for General Allen, the rarity of these incidents generates a limited impact on the political reaction to them. The U.S. response to Monday’s bonfire is crystalized around a lapse in judgement - "This is not who we are. These are very, very isolated incidents.” - but clarity offers negligible solace during a visceral event. Many Afghans don’t know anything about Americans beyond their contact with U.S. soldiers (just as the majority of Americans poses minimal knowledge of Afghan culture), and promises to correct future errors “in the fastest and most appropriate manner possible” are falling on deaf ears.

"It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials," Allen told NATO TV. "It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened."

Protesters are barely listening to the advice of Afghan commanders, some of which publicly sided with the streets, so Allen’s explanation is ferrying little water to Afghanistan’s dry political fields. Rather than express U.S. accountability, the incident has reinforced a general carelessness that pervades the image of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Burning Qurans are immediately associated with other U.S. “errors,” such as civilian casualties and the recent urinating minefield, defying Allen’s attempt to fit Monday inside a vacuum. This chain reaction then transfers to America’s overall strategy in Afghanistan. Apologies also lose their sincerity (and thus their value) over time, and negligence drains the trust reservoir to its limit. Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi later informed lawmakers of the Kapisa bombing, "We were not involved in that incident, NATO did not coordinate that attack with our police.”

“This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, who participated in a demonstration outside of Kabul. “They always admit their mistakes. They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”

The governor's office in Kandahar province would call the incident a "shameful move by some stupid individuals."

Nor does it help to put “Quran” in the same sentence as “Bagram,” a symbol of oppression to civilians and militants alike. The Taliban seized on this association to urge "our brave people” to “target the military bases of invader forces... kill them, beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again."

Although the burden of accountability is unrealistically high, the responsibility of governance is unavoidable during counterinsurgency. A state assumes authority of the political and military theaters, whether directly or through a cooperative government, and thus cannot excuse itself from negative events. Looking to amplify their grassroots effects, Parwan’s protest group is sending 20 representatives to Kabul on Thursday for consultations with Afghan parliamentarians (a small minority joined the street demonstrations). They also demand a meeting with Karzai, who has condemned the incident and promised to open an immediate investigation.

The President is scheduled to address both houses of Parliament on Thursday morning, and will presumably leverage these outstanding issues during his transactions with Washington.

Bagram’s developments carry a strategic undercurrent that U.S. officials are sure to ignore in public and fret over in private. Unable to near the beginnings of an agreement over night raids and control over detainees, Washington and Kabul are reportedly moving to split negotiations into separate processes. This decision feeds into the Obama administration’s dual urge to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, while also increasing the number of Special Forces post-2014. The dilemma is somewhat similar for Afghans: the majority don’t want U.S. troops to leave immediately, but don’t want them to stay after 2014 either.

Afghans currently quoted in the media are speaking from one script: foreign forces should leave now if they can’t bring peace to Afghanistan.

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