The fallout from the Koran burnings by U.S. service members last month continues.Several U.S. soldiers have been killed. And on Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of Bagram Airfield in retaliation for the incineration of Islam’s holy book.
A U.S. soldier currently deployed to Afghanistan shared his view of the situation with me.
Sergeant Nick Shively of the 172nd Infantry Brigade stationed in Paktika province, said:
“The insurgents used the Koran to write jihadists messages to pass to others. In doing so, they violated their own cultural practice and defiled the Koran.”
The holy books were confiscated from a U.S. prison, Parwan Detention centre at Bagram Airfield, after they were discovered to contain extremist messages and were mistakenly taken out with the office trash.
Sgt. Shively continued, “The insurgents turned the Koran into contraband. Therefore it’s ridiculous that we would even consider apologizing.”
Both General John Allen, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, and President Obama have issued apologies. It’s a move that could save lives as violent protests rage and an inquiry by U.S. military investigators confirms that five American service members were responsible for the fiery, accidental disposal of Korans at Parwan Detention centre.
It’s not the first time the prison has been at the centre of U.S.-Afghan relations.
In January this year, President Karzai demanded the U.S. hand over the prison for the sake of Afghan sovereignty. The Washington Post reported that the Parwan Detention centre and its growing detainee population is regarded as a critical marker in the war’s endgame and a sign that Afghan officials are ready to inherit institutions essential to the nation’s future.
The recent Koran burnings there could give Karzai some leverage in his request for the U.S. to hand over the prison soon.
Winning hearts and minds
Photo: Douglas Wissing
The controversy speaks to the American struggle to win over hearts and minds in Afghanistan.I spoke to historian and author Douglas Wissing who was embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including the same hostile province where Sgt. Shively is currently based.
Wissing had said in a blog post, “The recent case of Koran burning is even more absurd given the U.S. military was painfully aware of the problems of Koran burning. In late 2009, I was embedded with a unit of Kentucky soldiers, who encountered a mob of rioting Afghans protesting an alleged Koran burning by U.S. troops. Softball-sized rocks rained on the team’s convoy of armoured MRAPs, breaking windshields and antennas.”
He believes last month’s Koran burning at Bagram air base is a result of a failure of the counterinsurgency doctrine: “An over-promised doctrine.”
What does he mean by over-promised?
“Winning hearts and minds makes sense from the podium in Washington, but it’s hard to have it work out in Afghanistan on the ground where the road just erupted in front of you with an IED.”
The doctrine is found in Field Manual 3-24 (FM3-24), the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ handbook for counterinsurgency operations published in 2006.
According to FM3-24, troops must be prepared to take on combat missions while being expected to win over the local people with cultural sensitivity: “Ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade … Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”
Counterinsurgency has a “generational timeline,” said Wissing, and the Afghan mission can’t be wrapped up hastily. The international forces in Afghanistan are working with a tribal culture wherein relationships are fundamental.
As the U.S. draws down its military presence and focuses on readying Afghanistan to stand on its own, Afghan public opinion will likely be monitored.
Troops will have to avoid any more gaffes that undermine the effort to win hearts and minds by burning bridges on their way out.
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