Scholars reflect on Afghan Koran burnings, rioting
Several Harvard Kennedy School scholars who have worked in Afghanistan were asked to comment on how the United States should respond to the accidental burning of Korans by the U.S. military, and the subsequent deadly rioting in the country. Here are their responses:
Aisha Ahmad, International Security Program research fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Ahmad, a doctoral candidate at McGill University, studies political Islamic movements, and has done field work in Afghanistan and Pakistan..
(Note: this comment appeared first on the Los Angeles Times World Now)
Afghans are very religious people, and the desecration of the Holy Koran is an extraordinary offense to Muslims. However, these riots are symbolic of a much larger discontent with the international presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is horribly ineffective and corruption is uncontrollable. After a decade of trying to reconstruct the Afghan state, the international community is trying to make a dignified exit and declare some form of victory. But everyone knows that the U.S. and NATO are leaving and that the enduring legacy of the multi-billion-dollar state-building agenda is destined to be chronic insecurity, rampant unemployment and a narco-criminal economy. The burning of the Koran simply adds insult to injury to a battered and impoverished population. Symbolically, it set fire to the one thing that gives Afghans hope and succor in the valley of death that we helped to create: their faith.If you are looking to find an immediate way to deescalate tensions, then you are looking for a Band-Aid situation for a gaping wound. At best, the U.S. could strongly punish the individuals responsible. Unless the government and Army take immediate actions against the perpetrators of the burning, no one will believe that the U.S. is sorry. Afghans are sick and tired of hearing the U.S. say they are sorry. If you want the riots to stop, the government needs to take real action against those that are responsible for burning the Koran. That’s your only chance. Even still, it’s a Band-Aid and a long shot.]
Chiara Ruffa, International Security Program research fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Ruffa has done field work in Afghanistan, and her research includes studies of military actors in complex humanitarian emergencies.
The reaction to the Koran burning in Afghanistan needs to be put in the broader picture of other recent events that have increased tension throughout the country: an attack on a German forward operating base (and the decision of Germany to withdraw from that base earlier than planned); an attack on French soldiers (followed by Sarkozy’s announcement of early withdrawal of French troops); and US soldiers urinating on dead bodies.
The Taliban are capitalizing on gross mistakes and signs of tiredness from US troops and American allies. At the same time, burning the Koran (as well as urinating on dead bodies) clearly questions the effectiveness and quality of the cultural awareness training these soldiers should have received.
The Taliban are clearly trying to speed up the foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the withdrawal plan emerges more clearly, other actors may also have an interest in keeping the tensions high and getting the US and its allies to reconsider or postpone their withdrawal. The current situation might be a lost cause, but the best next step is to avoid a retrenchment of NATO soldiers inside their bases – even if it is the easiest option now. The best way forward would be to reiterate the intention of withdrawing military forces according to plan, but at the same time to maintain a strong presence. That means high levels of patrolling and keeping up civic engagement and other activities that involve contacts with the population. These actions will show that the Koran burning was just an isolated, unfortunate incident. And this message needs to be made clear on both the Afghan and the US sides.
The rioting and killings in Afghanistan over the past week are a reminder of the real challenges of governing a country where public order can break down so easily. This is a different challenge from that of defeating the Islamist insurgency. Indeed most of the rioting has happened in parts of the country where people have little sympathy with the insurgency.
The best chance for rioting over the Bagram Koran-burning incident to die down quickly is if Afghan political leaders appeal for calm, Afghan security forces deal responsibly with public order incidents and Afghan media refrain from airing inflammatory material. The most interesting line taken by some members of the Afghan parliament during their debate on the incident was: “We must not let the terrorists who created the conditions which led to the US intervening in Afghanistan benefit from manipulating such incidents.”
What the US can do to help this cooling down process is firstly avoid any moves which could be construed as provocative and secondly conduct quiet diplomacy with Afghan politicians and leaders. It is a good time to show respect and encourage responsible Afghans to focus on the common cause of stabilizing the country so that a large US-NATO contingent is no longer needed.