Book burning: When history repeats itself

The insurgency in Afghanistan is savvy and strategic – and will likely weaken Western resolve to stay in the country.

NATO recalls advisers after Kabul shooting
Afghans are not just protesting burned books, but the fact that they were burned by a foreign army [Reuters]

New York, NY – Book burning seems to be making history once again.

The inadvertent and partial incineration of some Qurans by a US-Afghan labour detail at Bagram ignited a web of action, from Kabul to the media circuits of the Republican Party presidential primaries.

Many lives were entangled, and some were taken, including those of at least six US soldiers. Even the dead were ensnared. In Libya, the graves of British soldiers from the Second World War were vandalised.

Of course, it is not the torching of holy books on its own that generates these effects around the world. It is worth reflecting on the help provided by the overall situation, and by other actors and forces.

 US soldiers may face reprimand in Quran case

Crucially, we should think about what we do not see, what is obscured, when we frame and name events as Quran burning – as protesting about it, apologising for it, or writing news stories about it.

Afghans are not just protesting burned books, but the fact that it was a foreign, occupying army that did the burning. That army and the war it brought with it have been in the country for over 10 years.

For much of that time, the West has promised social and political development, as well as Afghan self-determination. It has instead delivered violence and incompetent, corrupt governance. In the rush for an exit, it will leave behind a civil war.

In these circumstances, the humiliation of occupation, rage at the loss of kin and the bitterness of hope denied, together find their expression in protest over burnt Qurans.

After all that has happened, there are the Americans, torching the equivalent of the US Constitution and the Bible combined in a garbage dump.

Cultural awarness lacking

The failures of leadership and of the most basic cultural awareness and respect among some US troops have handed their enemies a made-to-order lightening rod for organisation and action.

Such moments are opportunities for the actors behind the insurgency. NATO is on the back foot, publicly embarrassed. The bounds of acceptable protest expand along with social pressures among Afghans to take action.

Insurgent networks have used the Quran burning to turn out popular demonstrations, inspire fighters in the field, and motivate suicidal action among lone bombers and gunmen.

The results so far have exposed the fragility and tenuousness of the Western presence in Afghanistan – in the civil society, the government and the security forces.

Particularly notable is the intensification of the ongoing attacks on NATO advisers and trainers, who must of necessity work closely with Afghan personnel.

Any orderly exit for the West from its Afghan imbroglio requires sufficiently strong Afghan security forces. Their task will be to hold off the Taliban for a “decent interval” before the collapse of the Karzai regime and the rise of a new dispensation. They might then regroup as the armed forces of a rump NATO/US-supported entity in the North.

The insurgent ability to strike directly at the trainers is therefore a matter of utmost strategic significance. One such attack (before the Quran burning) killed four French trainers. It led Sarkozy, rather indecently and facing an election campaign, to announce the withdrawal of French forces a full year earlier than planned.

This is a classic example of the entwining of Western domestic politics with faraway “small wars”. The French decision registers the fact that the West no longer has the will to continue its project of modernisation in Afghanistan.

Insurgent strikes

In the wake of the Quran burning, two field-grade US officers were shot dead inside the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. This led to the temporary withdrawal of NATO personnel from Afghan ministries, a clear victory for the insurgents. More insidious and long-lasting will be the increased fear and suspicion infecting personal relationships between Western advisers and their Afghan counterparts and trainees.

It is very difficult for officers and soldiers to develop warm and effective advisory relationships with one finger on the safety of their weapons.

Of little consequence is whether each attack on advisers is a planned Taliban or Haqqani operation, or the act of a loner suddenly inspired – perhaps by the Quran burning or by some more personal incident – to turn on the Westerners around him.

 Al Jazeera speaks to Afghan political analyst on Quran protests

General John R Allen, the ISAF commander, condemned the perpetrator of the Interior Ministry killings as a “coward”. Given that he killed a US lieutenant-colonel and a major, inflicted a significant defeat on his enemies, and got away to tell the tale, he should instead be studied as an exemplary insurgent by both sides.

In any case, in a war in which one side ambushes trainers resting in their tents while the other strikes its targets from the safety of drones, conventional constructs of heroes and fair fights only serve to cloud thinking.

As with visions of sneaky but spineless Oriental assassins, thinking in terms of Quran burning risks loss of clarity. Framing events in this way makes it all too easy to imagine Afghans as primitive people, who react out of instinct to the desecration of their totems. It is as if they are killing Western soldiers and demonstrating outside NATO bases because the Westerners did not salaam three times in the proper way.

Instead, the mistakes of a few US troops and a chain of all-too-human bureaucratic snafus at Bagram prison have given a savvy and determined enemy a strategic opening, which it has exploited to good effect.

The US should be thankful it is facing such a fragmented opposition in Afghanistan and that its efforts to decimate Taliban leadership have been so successful.

Images of Western soldiers being stabbed in the back by their Asian apprentices is a powerful means by which to undermine Western self-confidence. An all-out assault by terrorist means on NATO trainers and advisers might measurably weaken the West’s remaining commitment. It might also torpedo the advisory mission. But the coordination and resources necessary are probably beyond the insurgents and their backers.

In any case, such an operation is hardly necessary to see off Western troops from Afghanistan, who are scheduled as it is to leave in 2014.

For instinctual reactions to the burning of holy books, we have the US Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – assisted by Sarah Palin. They exemplify the wounded, over-compensating masculinity that so characterises a sector of the US right. In a series of statements ready-made for Taliban propaganda, they insisted that it is Karzai who should apologise to Obama for the fact that Afghans have been killing Americans.

It is as if, in 1776, an English politician demanded American revolutionaries beg forgiveness of King George III for killing his redcoats. The view is understandable, but unrealistic. Most of it all, it displays the petulance of a punctured pride.

Unfortunately for the West, Afghans at large have demonstrated a sophisticated grasp of the situation at a critical juncture in the war. Their attacks on advisers show an instinct for the exposed jugular of the Western exit strategy.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.