April 4, 2011 | 1740 GMT
- Afghanistan: Why the Taliban are Winning
- Obama’s Plan and the Key Battleground
- Military Doctrine, Guerrilla Warfare and Counterinsurgency
Special Topic Page
A Koran Burning and Social Unrest
Afghanistan has seen substantial protests following the March 20 burning of a copy of the Koran by controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones. Unrest began April 1 in the normally peaceful city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, where demonstrators overran a U.N. compound, killing three U.N. staffers and four Nepalese guards. (Initial reports suggested that as many as 20 staffers had been killed and that two foreigners had been beheaded.) Some 80 people were reportedly wounded the next day in Kandahar, where protesters attacked businesses.
Unrest continued in Kandahar through the weekend, as well as in Jalalabad in Nangarhar province and in Parwan province. In Kandahar and Jalalabad, the demonstrators took to main highways and attempted to block traffic. At least 10 people were killed in the violence in Kandahar over the weekend.
That it took almost two weeks between the burning of the Koran and the onset of unrest suggests a deliberate campaign to rile people up. This is similar to the way the initial release of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed went largely unnoticed until later protests gained traction across the region. While Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, apologized for and condemned the Koran burning (as did President Barack Obama), the incident came just as American servicemen went on trial for killing Afghan civilians and following the release of photos of American soldiers posing with the body of a dead Afghan.
What all this means is that after nearly a decade of occupying Afghanistan, the American-led coalition is already in a very precarious position, particularly as it tries to win over hearts and minds using a counterinsurgency strategy. Frustration with night raids and civilian casualties has been mounting for years, and the ISAF has always faced an uphill battle in the war of perception.
It is hard to imagine that the actions of a single individual on the other side of the world could affect a counterinsurgency campaign, but inflammatory acts — even at a distance — can ignite longstanding frustrations. In Afghanistan, the Florida incident galvanized a wide swath of a largely rural, conservative and decidedly non-secular society against the liberal, secular and Western countries that constitute the ISAF. And it is significant that the unrest began in a place like Mazar-i-Sharif, where the Taliban’s presence and influence is much more limited and where the ISAF has had much more success than in other parts of the country. The protests cannot simply be written off as Taliban-provoked; many anti-Taliban elements in Afghanistan are expressing outrage over the Koran burning, and condemnation of the act by Petraeus and Obama has done little to calm the unrest.
It is far from clear how sustained this week’s unrest will be. But one thing is certain: It is symptomatic of frustrations that run deep throughout Afghan society. Whether or not this particular round of protests continues, it has significant implications for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and its aggressive timetable.
Taliban Attack in Waygal
The Taliban’s military efforts continue as well, with reports March 29 that the district center of Waygal in Nuristan province had been overrun by Taliban forces, causing police and government officials to flee to the provincial capital. Waygal was also reportedly the destination of the police recruits kidnapped last week in the neighboring Chapa Dara district. Both lie close to the long-contested Pech Valley, from which American forces have been withdrawn.
This sort of development is nothing new for the Taliban, and it takes place in an area where the United States has deliberately decided to remove its forces from the equation. Neither Nuristan nor Kunar province contains any key terrain or other areas of interest in the U.S. strategy, and the success or failure of the U.S.-led effort will not hang on what happens in this isolated corner of eastern Afghanistan. But it is a reminder of the tenuous position of Afghan security forces and local government as the ISAF inches toward July, when it will begin handing over full responsibility for security in certain areas of the country to Kabul.
ANA Raid in Pul-e-Alam
Elsewhere, in the Pul-e-Alam district of Logar, which lies between two areas of interest for the ISAF, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 4th Brigade of the 203rd Corps reportedly conducted an independent, quick-reaction raid and succeeded in killing nine insurgents. While Afghan security forces continue to suffer challenges in terms of intelligence, planning and logistics, it is independent Afghan army operations like the one in Pul-e-Alam that will increasingly indicate the capabilities of Afghan security forces as they begin to take on more and more responsibility for security with increasingly limited support from the ISAF.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell announced this past week that $1 billion in aerostat (lighter than air) and fixed platforms for electro-optical sensors and turrets are being surged into Afghanistan. In high demand, these platforms are geared toward providing organic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities at lower echelons of the ISAF. As the United States and its allies prepare to do more with fewer troops, having the intelligence to employ them more efficiently will be critical.