A serious misstep in Afghanistan

The Quran burnings at the Bagram airbase were only the latest in a long line of US mistakes over the course of the last 10 years.


    Five years ago, deep in the south west of Germany, I was taken to see American troops prepare for Afghanistan.  

    Based in a massive training area which stretched for miles, a long way from the nearest towns, makeshift villages were built, native speakers of Afghanistan's two main languages [Dari and Pashto] were imported to give the soldiers an idea of what may lie ahead when they were finally told to ship out.

    An important part of the set-up is sensitivity training learning to talk with village elders, to address them properly and learn the ways and customs of a people who, by and large, simply want to get on with their lives.

    The young soldiers I was with thought it was a good idea and applied themselves diligently to watch and learn, wisely recognising if the locals liked them and even respected them then there was less chance of coming under attack, less chance of them or their buddies leaving Afghanistan dead.

    Serious missteps

    Despite this important training, the US has committed a series of serious missteps which has undermined their efforts to win over the Afghan people. 

    Last year, the leader of a 12 soldier "kill team" was given a life sentence by a US military court.  

    Prosecutors said Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs hunted innocent Afghans “for sport”, and cut off body parts for trophies. He then posed for pictures with the corpses.  

    Then there was the four Marines who videotaped themselves urinating on the bodies of the dead Afghans and the US sniper unit which happily posed in front of a Nazi SS banner.  

    There was the US combat outpost nicknamed Aryan.  

    And earlier this year, the British Ministry of Defence confirmed it was investigating reports that two ten year old children, a boy and a girl, were abused by UK troops.

    Military night raids that appall the cultural sensitivities of most Afghans, continue despite the appeals from President Hamid Karzai to stop as it undermines the redevelopment efforts of NATO soldiers. 

    But even these incidents have not provoked the widespread and deep anger of the discovery of the burning of Quran copies at the US-dominated Bagram airbase.

    Anger across nation

    People across the country have taken to the streets to protest.  

    More than 40 have been killed, including a number of Americans.  

    The US state department insists the protests have been hijacked by extremists who see this as a convenient issue to rally support.  

    That may be true in part, but it would be wrong to underestimate the anger felt across Afghanistan.

    The Americans seemed overwhelmed by the reaction, unable to get on top of events, or put together a response which would quell the violence.

    Walking around the shopping malls and the international restaurants in Kabul, it is perhaps easy to forget that this is, outside the capital, a deeply conservative country.

    And for many, the burning of the holy book stands out as a moment, which eleven years after the invasion, demonstrates America still doesn’t understand the deeply held beliefs and traditions in Afghanistan.

    It doesn’t matter, say my Muslim friends in the country, that the proper way to dispose of a damaged Quran is to burn it.

    This was disrespectful. 

    Sensitivity training

    America has apologised for the incident and the US commander, General John Allen, has ordered all military personnel in the country undergo 10 days of sensitivity training on the handling of religious materials.

    The greater concern is the damage the incident has done to an already fragile relationship.

    America wants to scale back the number of soldiers in the country by the end of the summer and pull all combat troops out by the end of 2014.  

    The intention is to leave thousands of advisers who will work closely with the Afghan security forces to stop a resurgence by the Taliban.  

    For that to work there needs to be trust and co-operation.  

    And that seems to be in increasingly short supply.

    Follow Alan on Twitter - @alanfisher



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