Protests Against U.S. Spread Across Afghanistan

Violence is spreading in Afghanistan in the third day of protests against the American military presence. Or, so reports the New York Times. But read the accompanying story:

Protests Against U.S. Spread Across Afghanistan

Anti-American violence spread to 10 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and into Pakistan on Thursday as four more protesters died in a third day of demonstrations and clashes with the police. Hundreds of students took part in three separate demonstrations here in the capital, where they burned an American flag, and a provincial office of CARE International was ransacked in a continuation of the most widespread protests against the American presence since the fall of the Taliban government more than three years ago.

In the most violent single incident, the police fired on hundreds of tribesmen from Khogiani, a district in eastern Afghanistan, who were trying to march in protest on Jalalabad, the town where four people died and 60 were wounded on Wednesday. The police blocked the tribesmen, many of whom were armed, 20 miles from the city and had orders to fire into the air to disperse the crowd, said Fazel Muhammad Ibrahimi, the director of health in the province.

The Afghan authorities and Kabul residents said the spate of violence was the fault of outsiders, who they said were seeking to capitalize on student protests stirred up by reports, most recently in the May 9 issue of Newsweek, that Americans had desecrated the Koran during interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Islamic fundamentalist political parties, remnants of the former Taliban government and a renegade anti-American commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are all possible sources of the violence, said Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

The American military is still trying to analyze whether the violence is politically driven, instigated by outsiders or a sign of general public frustration with the slow pace of reconstruction in the country, said a spokesman, Col. James Yonts. Students interviewed in Kabul pointed to the presence of American troops in the country as another source of resentment.

From their own account, anti-Americanism is a small part of the motivation behind these protests.

Update (0945): Today’s Christian Science Monitor has some stories on the mixed success of instituting civil society in Afghanistan.

Afghan ‘pipe dream’ draws closer to reality (CSM)

Back in the days of the Taliban, Mir Sediq was an engineer for Unocal, working on a pipe dream: bringing natural gas from Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.

Today, Mr. Sediq is minister for Afghanistan’s energy, mining, and industrial sector, and he’s confident that the pipeline is coming close to reality. Driven by a Pakistani economy growing at nearly 7 percent a year and higher energy prices, the pipeline, on paper, is the closest thing to a win-win scenario as one can find in Central Asia. For Pakistan, expected to run out of its own reserves in five years, the pipeline will help sustain growth. For Turkmenistan, it helps to provide a market for its substantial gas reserves. And for Afghanistan, it could mean from $200 million to $350 million per year in transit fees.

In the rough parlance of oil industry executives, that beats a kick in the head. “This pipeline is an opportunity for Afghanistan, and we would like to keep Afghanistan a place that is open and attractive for foreign investment,” says Sediq. “The foreign investment rate of return is 17.5 percent, based on the assumptions that the gas reserves in Turkmenistan are enough and the consumption rate in Pakistan remains high. Only security of the pipeline is left, and the government of Afghanistan is capable of providing security.”

It wasn’t so long ago that the pipeline was thought to be dead. Taliban attacks in the south appeared to be on the increase, and other sources of energy, such as Iran or Qatar, were more attractive. But growing Pakistani demand, increased Afghan stability, and higher energy prices for Turkmenistan have made the pipeline increasingly feasible. This week, President Hamid Karzai told donor countries the project was a top priority – on a par with the war on terror and opium eradication.

As yet, there are no foreign investors vying for the project, but talks between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are proceeding. In mid-April, the three countries and the Asia Development Bank held their eighth round of meetings to hammer out details of what Turkmenistan has, how much gas Pakistan needs, and whether Afghanistan is safe enough. The next round comes in July, but Sediq is expected to travel to the Turkmen capital of Ashkabad Friday to see if the government’s survey of reserves will be finished in time.

Afghanistan riddled with drug ties (CSM, p. 1 )

The case of an Afghan village police chief, named Inayatullah, is a small example of a much larger problem. Is Commander Inayatullah a courageous law-and-order crusader responsible for smashing the drug mafia in his hamlet? Or, is he an opium smuggler? Or, as his bosses say, is he both? It’s a question that hangs over more and more public officials here. The post-Taliban boom in opium production means that drug money now permeates every stratum of Afghanistan’s society – from the farmers cultivating poppies in the east to those in the highest levels of the central government of Kabul, according to senior Afghan and European officials working here.

“We are already a narco-state,” says Mohammad Nader Nadery at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which has studied the growing impunity of former military commanders and drug dealers who now work within the Afghan government. “If the governors in many parts of the country are involved in the drug trade, if a minister is directly or indirectly getting benefits from drug trade, and if a chief of police gets money from drug traffickers, then how else do you define a narco-state?” Abdul Karim Brahowie, Afghanistan’s minister of tribal and frontier affairs, says that the government has become so full of drug smugglers that cabinet meetings have become a farce. “Sometimes the people who complain the loudest about theft are thieves themselves,” he says.

In the past two years, the UN reports that poppy cultivation increased by two-thirds in 2004 to 51.7 million acres. The US estimate was even higher – at 87.5 million acres. Afghanistan now produces 90 percent of the world’s opium – most of it ends up on the streets of Europe and Russia as heroin. European officials warn that this fledgling democracy is being undermined as Afghan officials make decisions based on what’s good for the drug trade, rather than the electorate.

“There is a danger that all the stabilization and reconstruction efforts will be neutralized unless the narcotrafficking problem is addressed,” says Ursula Müller, political counselor at the German Embassy in Washington. “We have to fight this corruption … those guys involved in the drug business [who] are in all levels of Afghanistan’s government,” adds Ms. Müller, who has been actively involved in rebuilding Afghanistan since the US toppled the Taliban in late 2001.

The Afghan government of US-backed President Hamid Karzai has made countering the narcotics trade – over fighting terrorism – its central aim. And the international community, with Britain taking the lead, is planted firmly behind him. Germany, for example, is training local Afghan police, and the US has budgeted $780 million this year to support the antinarcotics battle. But the opium trade is deeply rooted in Afghan society. Many regional warlords and opponents of the Taliban are now top officials in the Karzai government. One of the most complicated – and delicate – tasks is to get corrupt officials to turn away from the drug trade as a source of personal income.

Clearly, we’ve got a long way to go to create a viable state in Afghanistan. It is primitive almost beyond imagining from a Western perspective. One hopes such things as the gas pipeline will help bring them into the modern age.

Update (1145): Several commentators have challenged my reaction to the NYT story above. My take from reading the piece was that the demonstrations were largely a result of tribal issues, given that they seemed to be emanating from a single group, and that the anti-American sentiments were merely being flamed as an adjunct to those issues.

The Afghan authorities and Kabul residents said the spate of violence was the fault of outsiders, who they said were seeking to capitalize on student protests stirred up by reports, most recently in the May 9 issue of Newsweek, that Americans had desecrated the Koran during interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Islamic fundamentalist political parties, remnants of the former Taliban government and a renegade anti-American commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are all possible sources of the violence, said Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Several other reports, though, seem to indicate that the (as yet unproven) allegations of Koran abuse may indeed be more central than that reading suggests. For example, the most recent reports from StrategyPage, hardly an anti-US venue:

May 13, 2005: The anti-American protests continue, as the United States announced it would investigate the allegations. From the beginning, however, it has been American policy to respect religious beliefs among captured Islamic terrorists. The prisoners have been supplied with religious materials, including copies of the Koran, allowed to pray and provided with Islamic clerics (usually military chaplains). Thus it is highly unlikely that abuse of the Koran, or religion in general, would occur during the interrogations. Any such incidents would have made the soldiers involved liable for punishment.

May 12, 2005: Anti-American protests have spread to the capital, sparked by an unsubstantiated accusations by a U.S. newsmagazine. Newsweek magazine published a hearsay item about American interrogators at Guantanamo desecrating the Koran to intimidate suspected terrorists. The Taliban has been trying to spread similar stories, but have no credibility. American media has more clout, even if the story in question is basically a rumor. The pro-Taliban groups will push this story as much as they can, but the Taliban support is basically restricted to some Pushtun tribes in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

May 11, 2005: American and Afghan troops put down the rioting in Jalalabad (east of Kabul, near the Pakistani border), killing four protestors and wounding sixty others. Hundreds of protestors tried to attack American and Afghan troops, and did destroy some government, UN and NGO buildings. There were smaller demonstrations in other towns, as the pro-Taliban Afghans now have a cause to rally around. American officials say they are investigating the accusations about desecrating the Koran. American interrogators are not supposed to do this sort of thing, and the American reporters who came up with the story don’t have much in the way of evidence.

May 10, 2005: Anti-American rioting broke out in Jalalabad, when local Islamic radicals became aware of a story in an American newsmagazine, accusing U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay prison, of flushing pages of the Koran down a toilet as a way to intimidate Afghan prisoners, and get them to reveal information about Taliban or al Qaeda operations. Jalalabad is a pro-Taliban town, and many locals are still upset that the Taliban is no longer running the country.

Several stories in the Washington Post, mostly from AP wire accounts, tell a similar story. As with any violent movement, there are surely multiple causes, with different members of the group motivated by different issues. My guess–and admittedly, it’s just that–is that the leaders of this outbreak are interested increasing their domestic power base and care very little about the alleged destruction of a single copy of a mass printed book. It’s not unreasonable, though, that it would be easy to get a large number of poorly educated but religiously devout peasants outraged by emphasizing these allegations.

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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.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    James, your gloss, “a small part of the motivation behind these protests” is, um, not an intuitively obvious reading of the text here.

  2. carpeicthus says:

    Seconded. He beat me to it.

  3. praktike says:

    I’m with Henley here. I don’t see how you can draw that conclusion, JJ.

  4. slickdpdx says:

    I was curious what kind of “students” the reporter was writing about. I think that would have some significant impact on any analysis of the events.