Violent anti-American protests over the apparently accidental burning of copies of the Korans at the Bagram air base have led to widespread anger and dozens of casualties, but will not cause long-term damage to bilateral relations, according to local observers.
Demonstrations spread across Afghanistan, with at least eight people – including two NATO soldiers – killed within the first three days of protests. Rallies were accompanied in some areas with shouts of “Death to America” and the burning of effigies of President Barack Obama.
The Taleban issued a statement calling on Afghans to go beyond demonstrations and target foreign soldiers to “teach them a lesson that they will never again dare insult the Holy Koran”.
Afghan president Hamed Karzai called on the public to remain calm, ordering an immediate investigation into the incident while instructing the security forces to avoid the use of violence.
The incident, in which a number of holy books were disposed of as trash on the air base, was viewed particularly sensitively in Afghanistan in the wake of last year’s burning of a Koran by an American preacher in Florida. At least 24 people were killed across Afghanistan in violence that erupted following that incident.
Officials in Washington acted swiftly this week, stressing that the burning of the books had been unintentional, and Obama sent a letter of apology to his counterpart Karzai.
General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, described the incident as a “mistake”.
“Local employees found out about the existence of holy books thrown out in Bagram, and they tried to prevent the situation from getting worse,” he said. “It was a mistake and we are currently investigating how it happened.”
Abdul Sobhan Mesbah, a defence lawyer who acts as a legal advisor to detainees at the Bagram base, told IWPR that he too believed the action had not been intentional.
Mesbah said that when some books and papers were taken out and burned as rubbish, labourers noticed some copies of the Koran within the pile and protested. Officials then quickly tried to extinguish the fire.
“The Americans fully respect Afghan beliefs,” he said. “The Afghans have reacted to such issues over-emotionally throughout history, and have suffered irreversible damage to their own interests as a result. And now, without any investigations having been conducted into this incident, they have resorted to demonstrations and violence.”
Experts believe that, despite the sensitivities involved, long-term damage to bilateral relations is likely to be avoided.
Jawid Kohestani, a political analyst, said that while the people of Afghanistan have the right to stage demonstrations in support of their beliefs and their national honour – and that others should respect this – “the public must not act violently in such situations, otherwise the harm will rebound on them”.
He added that the incidents will not, however, impact on the strategic relations between the Afghan government and the US.
President Karzai held an emergency meeting with parliamentarians on February 23 in which he reported that a government delegation had already been dispatched to Bagram to investigate.
Although their full conclusions were not yet known, Afghan lawmaker Fakur Beheshti said initial enquiries had confirmed the US account that the burning had been carried out by newly-arrived soldiers and was a mistake.
“Our impression is that the actions of one or even several individuals will not cause relations between the two governments to deteriorate, nor should they,” he said. “But it is obvious if such actions are conducted with political intent, they can damage relations.”
He further said that opportunistic elements might have tried to stir up public emotion by taking advantage of the situation, particularly neighbouring countries such as Iran or Pakistan.
“Our people must react to the issues with their intellect,” Beheshti said. “They must not let outsiders use them for their own interests.”
Some ordinary Afghans were prepared to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt in this case.
“I do not think the Americans intended to portray themselves as the enemies of two billion Muslims through this action,” said Ali Beg, an employee of the ministry of economy. “We call on the Americans not to repeat their mistakes; they should learn from this incident and respect the cultural and religious beliefs of the Afghans.”
Others, however, were less forgiving, reflecting widespread anger over the event.
Khaled, a shopkeeper in Kabul city, said that the US had not only disrespected values sacred to his countrymen but had caused a large number of innocent Afghans to be killed or wounded in recent days.
“We have seen in the past ten years that the Americans are the most depraved people on earth,” he added. “They have no respect for any morals or laws.”
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.