Making sense of the tragedy in Mazar-i-Sharif

The grisly attacks on UN employees in Afghanistan reflect underlying and mounting grievances that are being ignored.

Afghans protesting pastor jones

News of the vicious murder of seven United Nations employees in Mazar-i Sharif has outraged and bewildered Western observers as well many Afghans.

Thousands of protesters had attended Friday prayers and heard the preacher of the celebrated Blue Mosque condemn the burning of the Quran half a world away at Pastor Terry Jones’ Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida.

Agitated protesters then streamed into the streets, and a sizable group laid siege to the UN compound. The attackers beat, shot, and stabbed the staff and, according to initial reports, may have attempted to behead two of the victims.    

The tragedy surprised most observers because it took place far from the Taliban heartland in a province thought to be among the most secure areas of Afghanistan and in an ethnically and religiously diverse city that had been in 1998 the site of a bloody Taliban massacre. 

Why had so many Afghans in this anti-Taliban stronghold turned against the UN, a symbol of solidarity with the Afghan people, and why had they reportedly demonstrated with the slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”?

Speculation about Taliban infiltration of last Friday’s demonstrations only deepened the mystery. But it was not limited to Mazar-i Sharif.

For five straight days Afghans have taken to the streets in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Kabul to voice similar sentiments. Reports of the killing on Wednesday of an Afghan woman by a British military vehicle in a traffic accident in Kabul have heightened tensions there. 

If accounts of the beheadings are true, the appropriation of this hallmark tactic of al-Qaeda by residents of Mazar-i Sharif would signal an extraordinary shift in Afghan politics.

Yet, in seeking to make sense of this horrific act, not everyone has registered surprise. Critics of Islam have interpreted it as familiar proof of the intolerance of the Muslim faith.

For many war sceptics, this event has raised further questions about the character of the Afghan people who, like president Hamid Karzai, have figured more and more frequently since 2008 in American debates as shaky – and ungrateful – partners.

Indeed some commentators quickly pointed the finger at Karzai for drawing attention to the Quran burning, an event that had received relatively little press coverage. 

Western media reports of corruption at the Kabul Bank, officials’ grandiose villas in Dubai, drug use among army recruits, and rampant violence against women and paedophilia have displaced romantic images of valiant Afghans in the early post-Taliban era.

A more sober reading of the violence in Mazar-i Sharif and elsewhere should lead us instead to a very different understanding of the state of Afghan politics.

Washington has tended to reduce the Afghan political landscape to an archaic world of tribal loyalties and patronage networks. Yet the protest in Mazar-i Sharif demonstrates that other ideas animate Afghan politics, modern ideas that can’t be dismissed as the mad ravings of obscurantist mullahs. 

A broader context is crucial to understanding this violence. Since at least 2004 Afghan towns and cities have provided the setting for dozens of mass demonstrations.

Few of these protests have made it into the Western press, but a review of the Afghan media and the WikiLeaks logs reveals a dramatic pattern of nationalist political mobilisation in hamlets, towns, and cities across the country. 

Protesters have taken up diverse causes, though the mosque has rarely been the rallying point as it appears to have been in Mazar-i Sharif.

Voicing condemnation of the US and Karzai, most gatherings have emerged as spontaneous, and mostly peaceful, responses to reports of civilian casualties – as in last month’s demonstrations in Kabul – as well as to detentions, and slights against Islam. 

This last category has been quite expansive, reflecting an Afghan public that is more integrated than ever before into global circuits of ideas.

Not just the Danish cartoon controversy – which prompted violent rioting in 2006 – but also news of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, has brought Afghans out into the streets on a number of occasions in expressions of wider Muslim solidarity.

Connecting Afghans to the rest of the world via radio, TV, the internet, and print, the expansion of Afghan media is only one part of the story. 

The other is mounting frustration with foreign domination of Afghan politics, a dynamic that more and more Afghans interpret through a framework with a deep history in popular memory: from parliament to the streets of Kabul, Mazar-i Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad, calls for the safeguarding of national sovereignty against foreign interference now transcend political rivalries and join varied factions against the US and its allies. 

Even the Taliban have shifted their rhetoric in response. Denouncing collaboration with coalition forces, Taliban media outlets cast their cause as a popular resistance movement on behalf of all Afghans.

They present themselves as the pure and uncorrupted leaders of a national tradition of jihad. Promising liberation from an oppressive occupation and corrupt government, their nationalist message echoes the protests of parliamentarians and aggrieved villagers and townspeople alike. 

The tragedy of Mazar-i Sharif tells us less about the essential nature of Islam or of the Afghan people than it does about the potential for a nationalist mobilisation that could dramatically broaden the war in Afghanistan. 

If Washington does not hasten its efforts to negotiate a peace agreement and establish a viable mechanism to share power more broadly among Afghan political factions, the US may face a far deadlier struggle against foes drawing inspiration from the last century’s history of anti-colonial politics.

The international community has badly misjudged the impatience of many Afghans who see their protests as the latest chapter in a very modern, and universal, story of the defence of nation and faith against colonial rule.

Robert D Crews is co-editor of The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Harvard University Press) and director of the Centre for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University, where he also teaches in the Department of History.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.