For once, I don't know what to say. I've been dwelling on our future in Afghanistan all month, long before fellow advisors were shot dead in a ministry where I would sometimes work, long before the riots even kicked up. And now, for what seems like the first time in over ten years, everyone everywhere has something to say...few, of course, know what the hell they're talking about (in my humble opinion). Some certainly do. I'll attempt to discuss in a following the post the tragic killings at the Interior Ministry, and the grave fallout from that.
Some background, in case you're just catching up...
Afghanistan Koran protests claim more lives
An Afghan friend asked in an email the very same question that baffled my former comrades as we discussed the incident that triggered it all, the day it became widespread public news... Why would they burn the holy Quran of all things, and if they had to, why on earth would they leave evidence of that for Afghans to see? This has all been pretty well obscured by everything that has transpired since, as Americans in increasing numbers angrily demand that we leave, now. But it's so incredibly frustrating. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has presented such convincing evidence that we just aren't learning a thing, if members of our coalition -- 11 years into this conflict -- order the burning of the population's most sacred relic...and then leave half-charred examples behind for locals to discover.
Some apologists have pointed out the reason for the burnings: detainees were passing inscriptions to each other in the texts. Well then, handle it delicately...urge Afghan authorities to deal with it appropriately, for example. And don't claim from the highest levels later that it was inadvertent. Others have said, "So what? It's just a book! Now people are dying." That is true...but it belies a grave misunderstanding of how fragile an environment this counterinsurgency presents. You play the hand you're dealt, and the hand we've been dealt is Afghanistan, with all its immense challenges and sensitivities. You cannot hope to win over a population when you're found to be burning their Quran...that should have been made 100% crystal clear by now.
Some personal context is relevant here. When a previously obscure "pastor" named Terry Jones (pardon my cynicism over that title -- he lacks even a degree in theology) decided to make a point by announcing his plans to burn copies of the Quran in 2010, it ignited a round of deadly rioting in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world...just based on the intention of a few radicals in Florida. He relented then after public pressure from many, including Gen. Petraeus, but then would eventually do it anyway after a "trial" in March 2011, and further mortal riots ensued. It was evident from my conversations with Afghan colleagues, based solely on the threat, that it mattered little how relatively insignificant this man was and what his rights are in the United States. What mattered the most to them, as senior military officers and Defense Ministry officials, was how this act would go over with the Afghan people...since it reflected upon US troops, and Afghan government and military by extension, a dark stain of insult to their religion and way of life. Those perceptions were emphasized over and over throughout that period, by thoughtful and intelligent men who want only stability and progress for their country.
Protestors outside Bagram, eight days ago.
We spoke often, with our counterparts/advisees and within our training command, of the repercussions from Jones's intention, and that's what we were trying to prevent by bitterly opposing 'statements' such as that. Many in the United States angrily denounced the good general and others who took that stand, in the interest of our protected right to free speech and (I believe) a genuine desire that Afghans would begin to show greater tolerance for viewpoints at odd with theirs. But it's simply impractical, as those on the ground know too well. Our mission, at least in my training-focused command, was to build the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and institutions so that they could protect their people and gain their trust. We were trusted by our colleagues, but the 99.99% of Afghans without international advisors had no one to trust but their family/tribal/religious leaders, who saw a culture in their midst that would burn their holy book. And regardless of the circumstances, that's what they see now...only it's being done directly by those in uniform.
Meanwhile, the fighting among armed combatants continues, far from the glare of Kabul and the other cities. This could have (should have) been the story of last week...
Marines sweep uncharted areas of Khan-Neshin during Operation Highland Thunder
Or even better, this could have been it. It warms a skier's heart, that's for sure...as it should the heart of anyone who would like to see a positive sign of peace and stability in Afghanistan...
Afghanistan set to host second national ski race