Protests continued across Afghanistan against Florida pastor Terry Jones's March 20 burning of a Quran (Guardian). The violence killed three UN staffers and four UN security guards in Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday, April 1, and has since killed at least fourteen more. The conflict exacerbates concerns about the planned handover of security responsibilities in some areas to Afghan forces this summer.
Jones had threatened to burn a copy of the Quran last year on the anniversary of the September11 attacks, but backed down after religious leaders condemned the move and top U.S. military officials warned that it would "undoubtedly be used by the Taliban in Afghanistan (al-Jazeera) to inflame public opinion and incite violence." UN and Afghan officials have in fact cited evidence that Taliban insurgents seized the opportunity (LAT) to infiltrate angry crowds in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. Condemning the burning of the Quran, General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the incident created "an additional serious security challenge (CBS) in a country that faces considerable security challenges."
However, the Taliban denied that it was behind the riots (FT), as did some analysts (UNDispatch). A report in the Wall Street Journal concluded that "ordinary Afghan demonstrators played a critical role in the attack" in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The rioting is a disturbing new threat in a country where foreign and local military forces are ill-prepared for riot control, says the Wall Street Journal. It also comes at a time when the international forces are preparing to hand over control of some areas of the country to Afghan troops, raising fresh concerns about an effective transition. Mazar-e-Sharif is one of seven areas chosen for a security handover in July.
Some Western analysts have blamed the violence on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. CNN's Fareed Zakaria says the Quran burning went largely unnoticed in Afghanistan until last Thursday when "Karzai decided to capitalize on the issue" and called for Pastor Jones's arrest. South Asia expert C. Christine Fair also points the finger at Karzai (ForeignPolicy) and questions U.S. policy of supporting his government.Washington's relationship with Karzai is fraught with controversy given repeated allegations of corruption and cronyism against him. Karzai has ordered a probe (BBC) to investigate what turned the demonstrations to violence and why police failed to prevent the killings.
Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network says while Afghans are deeply religious and, therefore, understandably provoked at the Quran burning, their anger is easily manipulated because of atrocities caused by international forces.
Whatever the cause, these protests "are a defeat (CNN) for those on all sides fighting for Afghanistan's peaceful future," writes CFR's Gayle Lemmon, noting that the violent images from the protests widen misunderstandings between the publics in Afghanistan and the United States. Roger Cohen of the New York Times says Muslims around the world must have the courage to denounce the killings in Afghanistan. "Jihadists have too often deformed a great religion with insufficient rebuke," he writes.
Reuters reports a senior Afghan official blamed the killings of the UN staff on "reintegrated" Taliban--fighters who had formally laid down arms. This could pose further challenges for the international forces, as "the reintegration of low and mid-level Taliban fighters is a key part of the ISAF strategy to defeat the Taliban and end the terrorist insurgency," as Bill Roggio writes in the Long War Journal.
To end the war in Afghanistan, a political solution that involves reconciliation with those Taliban ready to give up arms is also being pursued. A new Task Force Report from the Century Foundation lays down recommendations on how to jumpstart the talks. But Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer cautions that a deal with the Taliban does not guarantee peace. "It makes sense to send a facilitator to explore the Taliban mindset, but talks won't work unless that mindset has changed," she says.
Robert Dreyfuss, a contributing editor to the Nation, writes that what's happening in Afghanistan "is a textbook case of extremism begetting extremism."
A CFR Task Force Report recommends the "United States should encourage an initiative with three complementary elements: political reform, national reconciliation, and regional diplomacy."
In this interview, Steve Coll discusses secret negotiations between the Obama administration and members of the Taliban., and the challenges plaguing the process.