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.
Late last year, for example, National Journal reported that American war deaths in Afghanistan -- steadily increasing for more than five years -- were trending lower in 2011 than the year before. That positive trend was forgotten weeks later when a video showing American Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters hit the Internet.
The Taliban’s recent opening of a political office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar sparked optimism that the U.S. and the armed group might soon begin substantive talks as Western involvement in Afghanistan winds down. Administration officials, speaking privately, said it was the clearest indication to date of the Taliban’s potential willingness to come to the negotiating table.
Now that news is swept aside by NATO’s announcement of a formal investigation into reports that American troops burned copies of the Koran, Islam's holy book. Thousands of Afghans protested outside the gates of the American base where the books were allegedly set on fire, with some of the rioters throwing petrol bombs at the facility. The military ultimately fired flares to dissipate the crowd.
The incident gives the Taliban a public relations boost within Afghanistan while eroding Afghan support for the NATO alliance.
Beyond the politics, allegations about mistreatment of the Koran can have deadly repercussions. In 2005, Newsweek reported that an American interrogator at Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. The magazine ultimately retracted the story, but not before it had sparked violent protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia which killed at least 16 people. Another 18 were killed in Afghanistan last year when a Florida pastor publicly burned copies of the Koran.
Gen. John Allen, the top American commander in Afghanistan, heard about the new allegations on Tuesday morning and immediately ordered a formal probe. Allen also issued an unusual public letter apologizing “for any offense this may have caused” stressing “this was NOT intentional in any way.”
U.S. military officials investigating the current incident say it’s too soon to know if -- or how many -- copies of the Koran were burned.
Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO alliance, said materials had been gathered at a U.S.-run prison located on the sprawling Bagram airbase and given to troops there for burning. Cummings said some of the papers were religious in nature, but said “the exact type and content of the religious material involved is being investigated.” Cummings said the troops involved were being questioned, but that it was not yet clear that Korans had actually been burned.
But that may not matter. 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.