Quran burning crisis
As though things were not difficult enough for western forces in Afghanistan, the incident of the Quran being burnt at Bagram air base has really put the cat among the pigeons. Thousands of Afghans have protested against the desecration of the Holy Book, at times turning violent and attacking western bases and installations. Two American soldiers have been killed by an Afghan soldier, and at least 12 protestors have lost their lives. The protests show no sign of abating as these lines are being written, and it is difficult to predict how this will play out eventually. The incident has come as a Godsend for the Taliban, who have exhorted Afghans to kill westerners, while their spokesman has at the same time said that the Qatar process of negotiations between the Taliban and the US would not be affected by the unfortunate incident. President Barack Obama has promptly sent a letter of apology to President Hamid Karzai, regretting the incident and calling it accidental. He has promised action against those responsible. The despatch with which the US president has responded in this case is glaringly different from the apology demanded by Pakistan for the killing of 24 of its soldiers in Salala, an apology that is said still to be ‘in the pipeline’. That glaring difference is an indicator of the seriousness of the reaction within Afghanistan to the desecration. Whether Obama’s apology will be sufficient to cool Afghan anger, however, remains difficult to ascertain, such is the angst unleashed by the incident amongst the religiously sensitive Afghans.
It is amazing that in spite of reported instructions issued to American soldiers regarding cultural and religious sensitivities, the US soldiers in the field in Afghanistan are either “ignorant” (as Obama put it in his apology letter) or just plain downright stupid. Clearly, nothing has been learnt by the US military from similar reported incidents in Guantanamo Bay prison and Iraq. In this respect, the US soldiers are their own worst enemies. The difficulties confronting US/NATO forces in the run up to the 2014 troops withdrawal have suddenly turned even more serious. At the best of times, candid off the record views of western observers admitted that in Afghanistan, the west is reduced to hoping against hope that all will go well up to and including the 2014 withdrawal. And all this kerfuffle is made worse by the fact that Pakistan-US relations continue to remain in a state of paralysis, creating more pressures on the western forces’ supply and logistics (Pakistan has still not reopened the supply routes to Afghanistan) and casting doubts on the ability of the US/NATO forces to negotiate a dignified withdrawal from Afghanistan while not leaving a total mess behind. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s interaction on the sidelines of an international conference on Somalia in London led to all the usual noises from both sides about getting their relations back on track, but the Pakistani parliamentary review of relations and terms of engagement seems subject to delay while the Senate elections loom. A joint session of parliament is supposed to be convened to visit the recommendations of the parliamentary committee on national security regarding the matter, and only after parliament decides the way forward will the diplomats on both sides be able to get down to the business of hammering out the details. US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Marc Grossman is still cooling his heels waiting for an invitation to visit Pakistan for discussions, as is General Dempsey, Central Command chief. Having shot itself in the foot in Afghanistan because of the Quran desecration incident, the US is not exactly on top of its game with Pakistan or in the region as a whole. If there is a lesson to be learnt from all this, it is quite simply that foreign wars and occupations eventually exact a high toll. Old-style imperialist intervention to police the world in the interests of the great powers is an idea that is, to put it politely, passé.