Afghan Riots And the Folly of the Afghan Mission

A pattern that never ends: Perceived insults lead to mayhem and murder.

The Atlantic headlines Yochi Dreazen’s latest missive, “From Urinating to Koran-Burning, the U.S. Can’t Stop Infuriating Afghans.” My instinctive reaction: Why are Afghans so easily infuriated?

Dreazen is right as far as he goes:

The violent protests that erupted in Afghanistan on Tuesday amid reports that American forces burned copies of the Koran are the latest in a series of self-induced wounds for the NATO alliance. The current phase of the long and unpopular war appears to be following a grimly predictable pattern. When there seems to be a smidgeon of good news, NATO troops commit a public relations blunder to overshadow it.

There’s no question that this is a blunder that undermines the NATO mission.  General John Allen, the commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, quickly issued a statement offering “my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused” to “the noble people of Afghanistan” and promising  ”this was NOT intentional in any way.”

Yet, despite this groveling, two days of rioting–which have already claimed at least seven innocent lives–have ensued.

Dreazen concludes, “Mere allegations of mistreatment of the Koran can spark spasms of deadly violence throughout the Muslim world, and anything positive out of Afghanistan will be lost in the uproar.”

There’s no doubt of that. Yet, surely, mass murder and mayhem is a far greater outrage than carelessly treating left behind books and papers?

Martine van Bijlert, director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, explains that, “The demonstrations are a combination of religious outrage, pent-up frustration and groups wanting to stir trouble. It is difficult to predict how bad things will get; this will depend largely on who manages to control – or hijack – the expressions of anger.”

While applauding the swiftness of contrition in statements by Allen and others, she warns “they are unlikely to placate those who were determined from the outset to make as much noise as possible, or those who feel they have already heard so many apologies in the past.” She also notes “the bewilderment felt by many Afghans (and foreigners) that after ten years of efforts in Afghanistan there was apparently still no understanding of how inflammatory mistakes like that are.”

Indeed, there have been enough riots and deaths over the years caused by Muslims outraged over various perceived sleights to their faith that the lesson should be crystal clear by now. Just last year, angry mobs murdered twelve innocents at the UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif because a self-styled pastor burned a Koran  in Gainesville, Florida–some 8000 miles away. Back in 2005, seventeen people were killed in rioting over a report–later debunked–that American soldiers had flushed a Koran down a toilet at a  Guantanamo Bay, Cuba prison.  Afghanistan was also a principle site of protest in 2006–and subsequent flareups of the controversy–over the printing of some cartoons making sport of the Muslim prophet Muhammed in the Danish Jyllands-Posten and various other European newspapers.

From a public policy standpoint, then, NATO, the US Government, and other outsiders in Afghanistan are absolutely right to bend over backwards to avoid inflaming the sentiments which lead to destruction and loss of life.

At the same time, however, it’s reasonable to wonder what we have gotten out of more than a decade of investment–including 1901 US and 2901 total NATO Coalition deaths–in an effort to forge, as President Obama put it in his speech at West Point, a “partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect – to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.”

Aside from hastening the day when our troops leave, none of those goals seem any closer than they were in 2001.

Photo: Getty Images

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    “Afghan Riots And the Folly of the Afghan Mission US foreign policy.” When you invade and occupy a country and kill it’s citizens the population is not going to like you.

  2. The Afghan mission became a mistake in my mind the moment it shifted from hunting down the people responsible for 9/11 and making them pay for their act of war to nation-building in a place where the tribe is more important than the nation. What made us think we could succeed where the Brits and the Soviets failed?

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    JJ were you in favor of invading in 2001 and at what point did decide we should pull the plug?

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    As soon as the Taliban were out under international law NATO became the “occupying power” with certain responsibilities including the responsibility to protect the civilian population. There was no viable government in waiting, no political opposition, barely any civil infrastructure, and, unfortunately, that’s basically still the case.

    Shorter: we could have avoided our present situation with a raid but as soon as we invaded we were stuck.

    Shorter still: don’t invade.

  5. @Dave Schuler:

    Indeed, you are correct here but I’m not sure what the other options would have been in 2001. If Afghanistan was left as the Taliban controlled backwater it was on September 10th then it would have been a breeding ground for Al Qaeda yet again.

    Of course, as we learned, much of Al Qaeda ended up being in Pakistan, or at least moving there once things in Afghanistan became inconvenient.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I favored invading in 2001, toppling the Taliban government, and killing as many AQ types as we could find. I opposed the goal of democratizing Afghanistan, thinking it unlikely to be achieved, but didn’t mind so much as long as our footprint was small and the casualties low. I came to argue that we should leave some time late in the Bush administration and vigorously opposed the Afghan Surge under Obama.

  7. @Doug Mataconis:

    If Afghanistan was left as the Taliban controlled backwater it was on September 10th then it would have been a breeding ground for Al Qaeda yet again.

    We could have afforded to make dozens of small raids for what the occupation has cost us.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: As I’ve said many times over the last few years, Whac-A-Mole has gotten an undeserved bad name. My vision of the War on Terror was a series of hit-and-run explosions at known terrorist camps around the world. There’s no reason to stay and try to create Sweden; just blow up the bad guys and make them afraid to show their faces. It was worth a try and would certainly have cost less in terms of blood and treasure.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I came to argue that we should leave some time late in the Bush administration and vigorously opposed the Afghan Surge under Obama.

    So you got religion late in the day and once there was Democratic president in office? I too was opposed to the Afghan surge but with political and military reality could understand why it was undertaken. Given the climate two years ago where we were clearly being beaten on the ground I can see the wisdom of going with a strategy that essentially produced stalemate. What was the president going to do, reject the advice of his Secs of Defense and State, and the military establishment (including wonder boy Petraeus) and listen to Joe Biden? I also think that if we were going to avoid a huge domestic division it made sense for the American people to get used to the idea that Afghanistan was another lost cause and swing against the whole idea. And when the JJ’s of this world have got the message it’s happened. Pulling the plug was a total admission of defeat whereas now essentially we’re getting out of there with our self respect more or less in one piece (it’s a delusion of course but then American domestic opinion has to be propitiated). The responsibility for this mess is Bush’s (or more accurately the cabal of idiots with whom he chose to surround himself) and Obama is merely conducting an orderly retreat.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    Two thoughts that don’t easily link. First, that after all of the learning that we Americans have done about Islam a person like Mr Joyner — an intelligent and learned man who has personal experience in Desert Storm — has so little understanding of the meaning of the Koran is just amazing. What happened at Bagram AB is not analogous to burning the Bible. Listen people — to Muslims, the Koran is analogous to Jesus Christ. It is the actual literal mind of God opened to mankind. I bet Alabama would have exploded in riots if a Muslim occupying force were to crucify the real Jesus in Montgomery.

    And then to see Mr Joyner advocate the Bill Clinton policy on Al Qaida leaves my jaw on the floor. Have we forgotten that after the Cole bombing Mr Clinton made three attempts on OBL? He destroyed a building in Khartoum having been victimized by bad intelligence. The Al Farouk training camp was hit by 75 cruise missles hours after OBL drove away. And a Special Forces unit actually watched a caravan of AQ vehicles with their eyeballs (not from a drone) but their ROE forbid them to destroy it because women & children were being transported as well as OBL himself. So as a Democrat, I’ll accept that as Mr Joyner and Mr Mataconis coming around to our superior policies,

  11. Anderson says:

    The Afghan gov’t always makes me think of this:

    When one state is completely dependent on another, it is the weaker which can call the tune: it can threaten to collapse unless supported, and its protector has no answering threat in return.

    — A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918.

  12. Barb Hartwell says:

    This may sound insensitive , but I am so sick of Muslims crying about their disrespected Koran, books. Okay they are holy to them and it wasn`t right, but taking to the streets about it. They seem to do everything in their power to get into fights about. Religion is maddening to me.

  13. Carson says:

    “Release the Kraken”

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    (or more accurately the cabal of idiots with whom he chose to surround himself)

    And that same cabal is now insisting we attack Iran and that it will be a “cake walk”. These idiots should be too embarrassed to show their faces but there they are – still pounding the war drums.

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Anderson:

    A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918.

    I take it he was speaking of the Hapsburg monarchy here and it’s relationship with the German Empire. Not really a perfect metaphor for our relationship with Afghanistan. I actually saw Taylor deliver some lectures when I was a student. Quite brilliant.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    Why are Afghans so easily infuriated?

    Granted, you won’t see rioting (unless major league sports teams from some cities win/lose championships)…but burn an American flag or drop a crucifix in a bottle of urine and see what reaction you get in these parts…

    So you got religion late in the day and once there was [a] Democratic president in office?

    Funny how that has been the case for a lot of Republicans/conservatives for a whole host of issues…

    These idiots should be too embarrassed to show their faces but there they are – still pounding the war drums.

    Shameless people are often incapable of being embarrassed by anything…

  17. DRS says:

    Well, perhaps they wouldn’t have minded quite so much if we’d destroyed the Korans in our own country instead of their’s…

  18. APL says:

    What the real problem is, that we, Americans, and our leaders
    Do Not Understand places like Afghanistan and other Middle
    Eastern Countries, and their histories. Afghanistan, like some other
    tribal based nations have never had a true central government.
    The governing powers only control a relatively small part
    of their country, The rest of the country is divided and controlled
    by different tribal leaders who have different beliefs and ideas
    on how their people should be governed. They have fought one another
    for centuries and will continue to do so long after we leave!
    Possibly forever!
    We have accomplished nothing but the loss of a great amount
    of money and the very precious lives of our military and others.
    We should quit meddling in other countries politics, except
    when they threaten us directly. Then we should respond
    with all the power we have to insure that it doesn’t occur
    again. Even if it means turning them all into glass.
    I know that this may sound harsh to some and many of you
    out there, but do you in all honesty, want your children and
    grand children to have to fight these wars time and again???

  19. Davebo says:

    Then we should respond
    with all the power we have to insure that it doesn’t occur
    again. Even if it means turning them all into glass.

    Yes, resolve a pass foreign policy debacle with an even bigger one. This sounds very familiar to the hubris that brought us our Iraq/Afghanistan follies.

  20. Tano says:

    My instinctive reaction: Why are Afghans so easily infuriated?

    I am rather amazed that you can’t see the obvious answer here. We are a power that is infinitely stronger than they are, and we occupy their country, kill whomever we decide deserves killing, and support in place the government of our preference. Imagine if some foreign power were to have such sway over our own country, and our own lives.

    And now imagine that those foreigners willfully desecrated that which is most holy to us.

    You will never understand the dynamic here if you simply expect them to react the same way we would react to seeing someone burn a bible. Some malcontent somewhere burning a bible would be like a mosquito trying to pierce the hide of a huge elephant. An American servicemember burning a koran in their country is like some giant, who claims to be benevolent, stomping on their holy things and grinding it into the dirt

    You need to understand the power differential, and how it might feel to be on the (very much) weaker side of that equation.

    Plus there is the whole issue of betrayal. To allow a foreign power nearly free range of ones homeland – for a tribal people who greatly honor their own history of repelling foreigners – entails a huge grant of trust. How many Americans would ever so trust a foreign power to have free reign in our country? Events like this are perceived as an absolute betrayal of that trust. They must unearth those worst fears that all Afghans had at some point before they extended trust – that the Americans would be no different from any other foreigner – that they Americans really didn’t respect the Afghans, and only wished to use them for their own purposes.

    How hard is this to figure out, James?

  21. Robert C. says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    There will always be “Al-queda breeding grounds”. This idea that we need to root them out ignores the simple fact that Sept 11, 2001 could have been avaoided if not for gross human error and hubris. I won’t regurgitiate all the errors. Simply put, Bush, Rice, Cheney, the FBI and CIA blew it.

    There is little doublt in my mind that our fiasco in Afghanistan has created more future anti-American actors than we killed.

    RC

  22. anjin-san says:

    It was time to go home long ago…

  23. Nightrider says:

    It is too bad that we can’t rely on the supposed priority of a book over human life, or else we could just fasten a Koran into all airline cockpits, army vehicles, strategic buildings, and so on in order to bomb proof them. I have to wonder whether they are actually outraged or just like to act outraged when the perpetrator is us.

  24. mike says:

    Any day now they will be a democracy. If we just spend another billion or two or 100. Plan B of trying to save enough face and pull out gracefully just doesn’t seem to work. Time for Plan C – leave now.

  25. Tillman says:

    My instinctive reaction: Why are Afghans so easily infuriated?

    It’s a statistical kook. They have a smaller population. We have the same number of people over here who are just as easily infuriated. It’s a law of the cosmos that any population must have at least the same number of pricks in it.

    @Tano: Oh, so when a Danish cartoonist drew Muhammed with a bomb for a turban (classy, as the Danes always are), that was actually a reaction to American occupation in Afghanistan?

    I get your larger point and mostly agree with it, but it seems leaving out Muslim religious sensitivity misses a huge piece of the puzzle.

  26. Tano says:

    @Tillman:

    so when a Danish cartoonist drew Muhammed with a bomb for a turban (classy, as the Danes always are), that was actually a reaction to American occupation in Afghanistan?

    Huh? I do not follow your logic.

    it seems leaving out Muslim religious sensitivity misses a huge piece of the puzzle.

    Once again, I don’t understand your point.
    To put it (over) simply – they react viscerally because they feel insecure, as a function of their relative powerlessness. That is most evident in situations of actual military occupation *Afghanistan, Iraq), but is true more generally as well. The muslim world as a whole is poor and weak relative to the West.

    All humans react differently (stronger, more passionately), to insults from someone more powerful, than from people who are inconsequential.

  27. Anderson says:

    @Brummagem Joe: The principle holds good. Cf. our propped-up post-Diem regimes in Saigon.

  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Anderson:

    The principle holds good. Cf. our propped-up post-Diem regimes in Saigon.

    Not really. Afghanistan and South Vietnam are/were minor client states a world away whose survival or collapse poses no serious let alone existential threat to the US. The Austro Hungarian Empire on the other hand was one of the five great European powers; geographically situated right across heartlands of central and Eastern Europe; and Germany’s only reliable ally in the Triple Alliance against the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.

  29. Anderson says:

    Not really. Afghanistan and South Vietnam are/were minor client states a world away whose survival or collapse poses no serious let alone existential threat to the US. The Austro Hungarian Empire on the other hand was one of the five great European powers; blah blah blah.

    Sorry, I didn’t realize that the problem is that you are dense.

    Cue the Taylor quote again:

    When one state is completely dependent on another, it is the weaker which can call the tune: it can threaten to collapse unless supported, and its protector has no answering threat in return.

    There we have a general proposition which, as applied to a variety of historical instances, may prove to be true or false.

    Taylor might have been (1) speaking of Austria-Hungary, (2) incorrect re: same, but (3) the statement might still be valid as regards client-states.

    His statement may be valid or not. However, merely saying “oh, but he was talking about Austria-Hungary” is not a relevant consideration.

  30. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Anderson:

    Sorry, I didn’t realize that the problem is that you are dense.

    It’s a pity you can’t have a discussion without resorting to ad homs.

    His statement may be valid or not. However, merely saying “oh, but he was talking about Austria-Hungary” is not a relevant consideration.

    Whether Taylor’s theory is valid or not depends entirely on the circumstances and these are relevant since you were applying his principle to specific cases (namely Afghanistan/Vietnam) and because it goes to the issue of the amount of leverage held by the weaker party which is what Taylor was addressing. When it gets right down to it, distant client states don’t have much as we demonstrated when we ultimately walked away from Vietnam and as we’re going to walk away from Afghanistan. In the case of Austria Hungary, Germany had no such option and was consequently always vulnerable to an ill judged foreign policy move by the Hapsburg monarchy. A somewhat analogous situation would have been the relationship of Britain and the US during and after WW 2. The Afghan/Vietnam situations aren’t remotely similar because ultimately neither have that much leverage. Thus Taylor’s theory holds good in some cases but not those you specifically mentioned and hence you were talking baloney.

  31. Barb Hartwell says:

    It`s time we leave all these countries to work things out for themselves. The more we stay the worse things get. I still defend what I say about the Koran Its just a book that can be replaced Lives cannot.

  32. @Tano:
    Tano, thank you. I had the same reaction to JJ’s “why are they so easily infuriated” line, but I couldn’t articulate it well enough to write a comment. I only could stare at the sentence and feel floored by how literal or simplistic the “not understanding” is, but I couldn’t put it into words. What you wrote above, that’s exactly what I wanted to say but could not at that moment formulate coherently in my head.

  33. @Barb Hartwell:

    How can you expect Afghans to look at it that way, or the same way, you do, Barb? That’s what I don’t understand.

  34. James Joyner says:

    @Tano: @Kathy Kattenburg: The problem with the whole “power differential” argument is that it’s not just Afghans and not just in reaction to actions of American occupiers. As already noted, these same Afghans had the same reaction to some cartoons being published by a Danish newspaper. Or some nutball preacher in Florida. And plenty of non-occupied Muslims–including those living in posh European cities–rioted and killed over those stupid cartoons.

  35. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    This is stretching a point JJ. The afghans as has been obvious for at least 8 years loathe us and regard us as occupiers. Thus it’s not going to take much to set them off. Scarcely a month goes by when we haven’t killed a bunch of innocents in a drone attack. And was anyone killed in those riots in Denmark? To be honest I can’t remember but I doubt it was nine people including two US servicemen.

  36. Tillman says:

    @Tano:

    Huh? I do not follow your logic.

    Not all Muslim violence is provoked in Afghanistan, so you have a hole in your argument. Ergo, Danish cartoon and riots thereafter. Remember, in this case they weren’t set off by drone attacks, they were set off by burning Korans.

    I grok easily that drone attacks make them more likely to be set off by burning Korans, but it doesn’t change the fact that the burning Korans are the igniting spark. Comedy Central wouldn’t let the makers of South Park depict Muhammed for the same reason. There’s an established pattern of religious insensitivity to Muslim iconoclasm regarding Muhammed and the Koran being a cause for action which goes beyond being bombed.

    My point is you’re missing this about Muslim culture. Consider that drone attacks, lamentable as this is, are now an everyday occurrence in Afghanistan, with innocent victims aplenty. We’ve been there long enough that if they were rioting over this, it would’ve happened and in greater numbers long before now.

  37. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tillman:

    We’ve been there long enough that if they were rioting over this, it would’ve happened

    It has happened.

  38. Big Dave says:

    Time to go home, the folly is in trying to make a modern nation out of a country full throwback tribes.

  39. Big Dave says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Your’ re completely right, Osama’s dead, and we can easily continue anti-terror ops without being in Afghanistan. Let’s bring the boys home.