Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Afghanistan’s ‘Cumulative’ Protests and the West’s Dilemma (amended)

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

Afghanistan has seen its largest protests since the fall of the Taleban. For six days in a row, demonstrations protested the burning of copies of the Qur’an at Bagram airbase in about half of the Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Roads were blocked, ISAF bases stormed and an UN office targeted and there were calls for jihad against the West, even in parliament. More than 25 people were killed – mainly protesters and Afghan policemen – and many more were injured. Even though most Afghans, even if angry, did not protest, the demonstrations have clearly rattled ISAF and the international powers, especially given that two senior US military advisors in the Ministry of Interior were killed by one of their Afghan colleagues during the same period. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, looks back at the events and looks forward to possible consequences.

How to judge what has happened in the last week? The protests were without precedent in the years since 2001, as was the withdrawal of all US, British, French, German and other ISAF advisors from the Kabul ministries, following the killing of their two US colleagues. At the same time, most protests were relatively small and remained peaceful. Apart from a few cases, there were only a few hundred people on the streets at a time. Even after prayers on Friday, the most violent day of the protests, most believers went home without joining the street protests.
Also worth noting, most protests happened in the north and east, where the Taleban are not particularly strong. Possibly ‘pro-government’ politicians wanted to be seen to put some ‘clear blue water’ between themselves and ‘the infidels’? The Taleban, expectedly, strongly condemned the foreigners, but also, more surprisingly, said again that they would not sacrifice the hard-won opening to talks in Qatar. (They did the same after the ‘urination’ video.). It seems probable that the Taleban have again suspected ‘spoilers’ in the US military of trying to sabotage the peace process.

The Taleban also claimed the Ministry of Interior killings, as revenge for the Qur’an burning. The claim appears opportunistic and rumours and speculation surround the incident – was it a personal attack or a professional assassination? But ordered or paid by whom? It is indeed possible that the killings had nothing to do with the Qur’an burnings. Nevertheless the fact that it happened in the same week as the demonstrations has amplified its seriousness.

Populist leaders in both Afghanistan and abroad have sought to exploit Afghan anger over the Qur’an burning, portraying the events of the last week as a watershed moment, proof that Afghans no longer want the international powers in their country.

As a result of these events, many in the United States have been stereotyping Afghans as ‘fundamentalist’, ‘ungrateful’ and generally as a ‘lost cause’. One of them is US Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich who told a newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia: ‘These are people who have spent several thousand years hating foreigners’. Well, that’s electoral campaign talk, you will say, but read the headline of an article by the associate editor (so I assume it is his headline) of the respected magazine The Atlantic: ‘If Afghans Want to Reject the U.S. and Embrace Theocracy, That’s Their Right’. Meanwhile, in Germany, the Berlin daily tageszeitung found an Afghan-American working in a ministry to quote who called the protesters something like morons (I do not have his original term, only the German translation) ‘who are unable even to read the Qur’an’.

But as my colleague Martine van Bijlert who described the ‘different faces of anger and restraint’ among Afghans over the past days in two earlier blogs (here and here) emphasised ‘it would be a mistake to paint the whole population with the same brush’.

So we return to the main questions: Is this a watershed moment? Were the protesters only a minority, or did they represent the broader population? And what will be the international response?

Anger was certainly high and widespread after the Qur’an burning incident at Bagram Base, and not only among Islamists. But not everyone who was angry went onto the streets. Afghans have been educated politically the hard way over the last three decades of internal turmoil and foreign interventions. Therefore they are perfectly capable of taking a decision about whether or when to protest and with whom, too. Many had realised that there were people who wanted to instrumentalise their anger for their own purposes, and they did not want to be part of this. Not every devout (or angry) Muslim wants be governed by ‘the mullas’. A quote of Haiti’s former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fits perfectly here: ’Analphabète, pas bête‘ – ‘illiterate but not stupid’.

But even if we did not experience a popular uprising, incidents like the Qur’an-burning at Bagram still play into the hands of Afghanistan’s Islamists. I am not speaking of the Taleban only here, but of Kabul’s own Islamists who sit in key positions in the new state institutions and are working on establishing their ‘cultural’ and, through this, political hegemony. Who, after the Qur’an burning outrage and the defence of ‘Islam’ by Afghan leaders, will, for example, stand up and criticise the Minister of Information and Culture who just a few days earlier again instructed Afghan female TV presenters to cover themselves ‘properly’ in front of the cameras and use less make-up? I am not saying this move was linked to the protests (and the Minister is an educated man and definitely not a firebrand Islamist) – but it is part of the context in which the protests took place.

The Islamists and their parties have considerable influence among the youth, particularly the educated. Yes, the ‘vocal new generation’ – as Martine has called it – has ‘a mind of their own and many of them [are] determined to make something more out of their country’ than what their parents have experienced under more than three decades of leftist, Islamists and ‘pro-Western’, but nevertheless equally unsuccessful, regimes.

Yet the well-reported signs of modernity – wide-spread internet literacy, skate board venues, girls’ football teams and graffiti street artists as well as the mass response to programmes like the ‘Afghan Star’ – do not necessarily also make young people democrats. On the contrary: President Karzai’s decree that bans political activity on university campuses has been duly followed by most of the small pro-democratic groups, but the Jihadi leaders’ parties can ignore the law with their usual impunity.Antonio Giustozzi, in a report written for AREU in 2010 about students’ politics, states that the ‘reception of political parties among students varies widely on the basis of their ethnic background’, detailing how tanzims like Jamiat,Jombesh and Hezb-e Islami recruit and support student activists, paying their dorm fees and demanding loyalty in response. Being deeply disappointed about how the West approaches them and their country, facing a lack of political alternatives and an unclear future – both job and security-wise – makes them vulnerable in their ‘cumulative anger’ for the current Afghan form of populism which is ‘Islamic’ anti-westernism.

Still, this context is blinded out by some commentators abroad. One blogger who I respect a lot still talked about an ‘accidental cremation of several pre-defaced Korans’ two days ago. Many media here in Germany spoke of an ‘alleged’ Qur’an burning days even after ISAF commander John Allen had acknowledged it and apologised.

However, the MoI killings, coming on the back of the anti-western demonstrations, may fundamentally affect the whole Western transition strategy in Afghanistan. This strategy is based exactly on the deployment of a large number of trainers, mentors and advisors in the ANSF (many of them embedded in Afghan units) and in the ministries governing them and aims at copying the Iraq exit: rebrand some troops (from combat to training), withdraw others and don’t talk much about the Special Forces and CIA units. General Allen knows how serious this is:

‘The advisers’ withdrawal cast doubt on one of the most critical parts of the international mission in Afghanistan: the mentoring and training of Afghan forces who are to assume responsibility for security and the war against the Taliban after the United States pulls out its combat troops.’

Therefore he calls it ‘temporary’ only, asked the soldiers ‘to look deep in your souls [and] remember your mission’, and assures us that the mission will be kept on course. The Pentagon’s press secretary also did not allow any doubt:

‘Anyone who believes they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken. There is much at stake in Afghanistan, and our commitment to our mission and our strategy will not waver.’

Indeed, current Western governments simply cannot withdraw their advisors and trainers for good. This would be an admission of failure, and no one would buy their current narrative of a difficult but successful mission after withdrawal in 2014 any more. On the other hand, the priority particularly of European governments is to avoid any further casualties, in order not to heat up further the discussion amongst their electorates who already are against the ‘Afghanistan mission’ anyway (see the recent German withdrawal from Taloqan). But, as a Pentagon spokesman put it, there can be no ‘zero risk’ guarantee against such incidents. That puts governments in a real dilemma.It may be that the grassroots take the decision themselves. Who will volunteer for trainer and advisor jobs after the MoI double murder, especially given that it followed 45 similar incidents, in the years since 2007, with some 70 dead and 200 wounded*, three quarters of them in the last two years? Even in much more peaceful times, the EU police mission had difficulties filling its tashkil.However, in the swirl of election politics – the US and in France (and next year, at the latest, also in Germany), the ‘pragmatic’ policies of current governments are up for discussion. The financial pressure has been on for quite a while – ‘it’s hard to believe, but American taxpayers are still shelling out $2 billion a week in Afghanistan’, CNN’s famous Wolf Blitzer reminds us -, the political heat is being upped, too. Here’s Newt Gingrich again:

‘There’s some problems where what you have to do is say [to the Afghans] “You know, you’re going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life because I’m not here — you clearly don’t want to hear from me how to be unmiserable”’.

Populism might just triumph in America and more inward looking US voters might just buy the idea that Afghanistan is a hopeless basket case. NATO allies will follow happily, as long as they do not need to make the first step. (Remember how quickly President Sarkozy reversed his decision to immediately withdraw French troops from Kapisa after a similar ‘fratricidal’ shooting incident earlier this year, just not to be seen as the first one chickening out?)

On the Afghan side, dropping the NATO training strategy might paradoxically lead to Afghan officers and soldiers taking more initiative and responsibility. Many people have well-founded doubts about the quality and the morale of the ANSF personnel. But no doubt, there are good, committed and patriotic soldiers and policemen who also do not want the return of the Taleban. (And the battle of Jalalabad in 1989, after the Soviet withdrawal was completed showed how an army with its back to the wall can be motivated by their adversary’s atrocities and, if supplied from abroad, can fight courageously and successfully.)

On the other hand, these brave soldiers and policemen have the same problem as the foreign advisors. They just can’t be sure whether their comrade in the trench has – just to be on the safe side – already made a deal with the Taleban.

A very interesting view from the US on these events read here: Blown Away: How the U.S. Fanned the Flames in Afghanistan 
by Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse.

* The most prominent case came in April 2011, when an Afghan air force officer killed 8 US colleagues and contractors, shortly after the announced Qur’an burning ceremony in Florida (that did not take place in the end, but had been well-published by the organisers).

Amendment: The statistics on ‘fratricidal’ killings of ISAF personnel came from a report that was published last year, then disappeared from the web and has re-appeared now. It can be found here.
Cartoon: tageszeitung (berlin) (sorry, don’t get it larger… but you can see the Islamic crescent, that’s important)Pic 1: teacher: Today we want to talk about Islam. The relationship of Western people…Pic 2: teacher: … to the people living under the half-moon is characterised by bias and lack of knowledge from the bginning. Can someone given an example? Yes?

Pic 3: It is a quarter-moon.


ISAF Protest Torture