The violent response to accidental Koran burning once again drives home the perils of nation-building.
American soldiers mistakenly burned a half dozen Korans in Afghanistan. Predictably, the response was riots by many and murder by a few Muslims. Violence has become the tactic of choice of Islamic extremists around the world against secular critics and religious minorities alike.
Indeed, this isn’t the first time that Afghan mobs have killed to avenge a perceived insult to their faith. Last year a crowd in the generally peaceful city of Mazar-e-Sharif slaughtered a dozen United Nations staffers after Rev. Terry Jones burned a Koran in Florida.
The latest round of violence was sparked by the burning of six Korans removed from a prison because they contained extremist messages — added by Afghan Muslims apparently unconcerned about the alleged sacredness of the text. Sent to a landfill, they were set on fire before Afghan personnel identified them as Korans.
In the ensuing violence some 30 Afghans died and a half dozen Americans were killed. A taxi driver told the Wall Street Journal: “If they are insulting our Koran, we don’t want peaceful rallies.” A policeman informed the Washington Post: “Afghans and the world’s Muslims should rise against the foreigners. We have no patience left.” Another cop, trained by NATO, declared: “We should burn those foreigners.”
Members of parliament and political allies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai openly encouraged attacks on allied personnel. Parliamentarian Abdul Sattar Khawasi asserted that “Americans are invaders, and jihad against Americans is an obligation” and called for “war against Americans.”
Apparently no one expressed remorse over the deaths of innocent people. President Karzai demanded U.S. cooperation in his investigation of the incident. Local religious leaders called for trying the American personnel who burned the Korans in Islamic court. After meeting with President Karzai, one group of senior Islamic clerics issued a statement: “This evil action cannot be forgiven by apologizing.”
The initial U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was necessary to break al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for hosting terrorists. But those objectives were achieved a decade ago.
Since then Washington has been attempting to establish competent and honest governance in Kabul. Along the way Americans have sacrificed more than 1,900 lives (U.S. allies have lost another 1,000) and $507 billion. However, the latest example of deadly intolerance in Afghanistan suggests that America’s attempt at nation-building is a chimera, unattainable at least at reasonable cost in reasonable time.
The difficulty starts with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. His supporters committed widespread electoral fraud during his 2009 reelection campaign. The State Department declared the vote “marked by serious allegations of widespread fraud.” The 2010 parliamentary elections were little better, “marred by widespread fraud and corruption” according to State. Last year the group Freedom House declared that the “parliamentary elections, which were characterized by widespread fraud, did little to repair the credibility of Afghan political institutions following the flawed 2009 presidential poll.” In an assessment released earlier this year, Freedom House reported a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Corruption is pervasive, yet President Karzai forced the release of a top official arrested as a result of an investigation by the anticorruption task force. Karzai’s late brother, Ahmed Walid Karzai, was widely believed to be involved in the narcotics trade. Wealth generated by that business, as well as siphoned off from the massive inflow of Western money that dominates Afghanistan’s war economy, has funded construction of gaudy “poppy palaces” that line Kabul streets. In grand understatement, Freedom House warned of “a lack of political will to address the problem.”
Afghans are cynical about “their” government. However, they fear “their” security forces, particularly the Afghan National Police. When I visited Afghanistan people described being robbed by the latter, which is supposed to protect them. The latest State Department assessment on human rights reported that the “security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.” State cited “reports of serious abuses by government officials, security forces, detention center authorities, and police,” including arbitrary arrests, unlawful trials, and illegal imprisonments filled with beatings, torture, and rape. Children are mistreated as well.
Such is the government presided over by President Karzai. Yet he plans to spend his time investigating the accidental burning of a few copies of the Koran.
EVEN MORE FANTASTIC is the U.S. government’s desire to build a liberal nation state in Afghanistan. The latter is a desperately poor land ravished by decades of conflict. More important, Afghanistan is locked in the past.
There are educated and tolerant Afghans who want to build a free and humane society, some of whom I met on my first trip to Afghanistan in 2010. When I visited the country last October as part of a NATO-sponsored delegation, a group of female parliamentarians expressed their fear of the consequences of an allied withdrawal. Even most rural, tribal peoples are not the “savages” denounced by Sarah Palin, but simply traditionalists who want to be left alone.
However, there obviously are many — too many — Afghans who view the lives of infidels, even “people of the book,” as Jews and Christians are known, as valueless. The burning of the Korans was called “antihuman” by one Islamic cleric and “inhumane” by the clerical delegation which met with Karzai. Yet the murder of non-Muslims is accepted as reasonable and just by some Afghans.
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