March 11, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The US has upped its schedule to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan. In June last year, President Obama had made a public declaration to bring the troops back by end of 2014. Recently, the US Defense Secretary announced that the US would be bringing all combat troops home by 2013 instead.
The President’s commitment notwithstanding, no doubt necessitated by the Presidential elections later this year, events in Afghanistan are not shaping the way the President would have liked. The Karzai Government has failed to show the potentials necessary to give the confidence to the US that the country would be on track in which it has tried to put the country at great financial and human costs in pursuance of the war on terror. The Talibans are resurgent and negotiations are under way with US concurrence for a role for the so-called moderate Talibans in a post-US Afghanistan.
To make matters worse for the US, its troops have become embroiled in the country for burning the holy Koran. The incident occurred in Parwan on February 20th . It has affected since every aspect of relations between the two countries and all arrangements related to the withdrawal schedule of US combat troops in Afghanistan. Afghans are outraged. In incidents related to the Koran burning issue, 29 Afghans and 6 American soldiers were killed in the week following the burning.
The US administration is very deeply concerned. The administration went to action immediately to contain the dangerous post-burning effects. President Obama and the US commander in Afghanistan also apologized; apologies that drew great flak in USA but nevertheless helped contain the situation from going dangerously out of hand. In addition, the US ordered immediately a joint American-Afghan investigation and the US military, its own investigation. The powerful Afghan religious body the Ulema Council also ordered a separate investigation.
The US-Afghan investigations have identified a chain of human errors that led to the unfortunate event. The investigation revealed that six US military personnel that included an Afghan-American interpreter were involved in the burning. Importantly, the investigation did not find any pre-planned or deliberate attempt by the six involved in the burning to incite Afghans’ religious sentiments. Nevertheless, the episode had the script of a mystery drama and started with US suspicion of Afghans incarcerated in the Parwan detention centre.
The US military in charge of the detention centre in Pawan became suspicious that the detainees were using library books to scribble notes internally and externally to organize an uprising. They feared a security risk and 2 Afghan interpreters were assigned to sort out the books in which the scribbling was reported to have been done. The two ended up with sorting 1652 books that included a few Korans but mostly books of secular nature, including novels and poems.
What was actually scribed in the books and whether these writings in anyway posed a security risk was not thoroughly discovered by the US military personnel involved or the Afghans who assisted because there were too many books involved and too little time to review the writings. The Ulema Team that has also investigated the matter however found very personal writings on the books such as their names and other personal records. On the Korans and on the religious books, the writings were merely to explain the text in local Afghan dialects and had nothing to do with “terrorism or criminal activities.”
Where the simple decision in the matter could have been to store the 1652 books as they did not reveal anything suspicious or threatening, the US military personnel involved in the matter simply went ahead and ordered the books to be burned. In deciding, the relevant officials made one procedural error and another of much serious nature, a total insensitivity and lack of understanding to Islamic beliefs and traditions. The procedural mistake was not to have retained the 1652 books for a while longer and instead deciding straightaway to burn the total lot.
The cardinal error of the officials who ordered the burning was to have overlooked that in the lot, there were a few Korans or not to have thought that in lot, there could be a few Korans. Clearly, anyone even with a vague notion of what a Koran means to the Muslims would have taken out the few Korans from the lot and gone ahead with the order to burn the rest. The officials did not do that. It was only when Afghans who were ordered to burn the books found the Korans that the alarm bell was sounded but by then the Korans were substantially burnt.
US apologies and orders of investigations however have not been enough to appease the Afghans. The Ulema Council has said that Afghan custom and tradition demands that those responsible for the burning should be publicly punished. The US of course is not going to do any of it. US public opinion is also strongly against such a demand. Some of the opinions on a report by the NY Times covering the burning incident make very interest reading. Almost all the 100 plus letters that I sampled expressed deep contempt for Islamic and Islamic values that could lead one to conclude that still in the US, Muslims continue to remain suspect even when their religion is violated and humiliated.
The US has invested so heavily in Afghanistan that they should have been leaving the country as heroes. Instead, the Koran burning issue is surely going to be for the US the parting kick for all their sacrifices for the people of Afghanistan; the final nail to seal the coffin on US unpopularity in the country. In this Koran burning incident, the US has again underlined how little they know of Islam, Muslims and the Islamic world. The Koran is a living symbol of the Almighty in the lives of every Muslim, an overwhelming majority of who are not fundamentalists. They not just believe that the Koran has been authored by God; they believe that He gave it to Muslims through Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Muslims show to the Koran the respect that a non-Muslim will never perhaps understand.
The US is also being forced to bring the Talibans to the negotiating table. Hamid Karzai has clearly proven that he would not be able to live up to the expectations that the US and its allies have placed on him. The US would be spending the same amount of time in Afghanistan till it withdraws its combat troops by 2013 as did the Soviets in the 1980s. The Soviets had left in failure. It looks as if the US would likewise as did all foreign troops in history of Afghanistan. Like the dog’s crooked tail, Afghanistan is again about to go back to its own ways and about to prove that there is a lot of truth in the cliché that history repeats itself.
Nevertheless, the US can take at least the comfort that it has broken Al Qaeda substantially having killed most of its top leadership including Osama Ben Laden. At its worst, even an Afghanistan free of US occupation with Talibans in power in one shape or another, would be a problem for the Afghans but little threat to the US or the West. The Muslim world would like to expect that after the US leaves Afghanistan, it would not use what happens there to humiliate them across the world. It is time for the US and its allies to realize that Muslims have been the victims of the world on terror that President Bush had started.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt