An unprecedented wave of anti-American protests and attacks on US and NATO military personnel over a recent Quran burning incident in Afghanistan has brought already troubled US-Afghani relations to their lowest point. However, the implications of the escalating diplomatic scandal, aggravated by the rising death toll on both sides, go far beyond the situation in Afghanistan.
What is at stake is not only the future of this war-torn country, which is getting more and more uncertain as emboldened Taliban fighters pledge to drive Americans from their native land and stage a spectacular comeback by toppling the government of President Hamid Karzai. In fact, the current Afghan crisis comes as another critical test for Barack Obama as he seeks re-election. As a dual Afghan-Pakistani strategy was initially proclaimed one of the pillars of President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, what is decided today in the muddy fields and dusty streets of the rebellious Afghan cities is the fate of the geopolitical project of the decade, launched by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush.Finally, another dimension of the story is its long echo in the vast Muslim world. The incident with religious Muslim books and Quran copies dumped at the US military base in Bagram evokes the memory of several episodes of desecration that rocked the world in past years, as if illustrating Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations. Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) published by the leading Danish papers, Florida-based pastor Terry Jones burning Qurans, not to mention Salman Rushdie reciting his Satanic Verses and going into hiding to escape punishment imposed by the Supreme Ayatollah… As for the Quran one may also recall stories of how the holy book was used by American soldiers for target practice to upgrade shooting skills in Iraq, and flushed down the toilet in notorious (hell on earth) Guantanamo.
Well, there are too many stories to reveal how explosive all these issues are. From the ages of the Crusaders to today, the relationship between religious groups look like a minefield where any inaccurate step can lead to a devastating blast.
However, let us return to what happened at the US military base in Bagram and its aftermath. Someone at a distant shore would probably call the current Afghan protests against US and NATO troops, while sharing the indignation of local folks, “a moment of madness.” There are Muslim scholars who consider the present-day reaction to Quran burning disproportionate and irrational. Here is a statement from Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, who chairs the mosques and community affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain. Let me quote: “What is captured on the pages can be printed again. If they burn 1,000, we can print 10,000. What’s the big deal?” According to the scholar, “a NATO soldier killing innocent people is far more painful than the burning of a Quran.”
However, this seemingly rational approach can hardly explain the real motives of the angry crowds, setting ablaze major Western missions in Kabul and attacking NATO military bases and convoys. A decade after the demise of the Taliban regime in a blitz campaign, US troops in Afghanistan have realized they have found themselves in a trap. A trap they initially pledged not to fall into, recalling the experience of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan, described by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev as “performing our international duty.”
Month after month, a multi-thousand-strong ISAF contingent in the country looks more and more like an elephant in the room, hitting civilian targets and killing Afghan citizens. If there were no slaughter of innocent women and children, there would probably not have been the wave of violence which just needed a last straw.
It is not surprise that Taliban fighters, sticking to time-tested “hit-and-run” tactics, are expanding their control of the country and seemingly getting an upper hand in the propaganda war. “We should attack their military bases, their military convoys, we should kill their soldiers, arrest their invading soldiers, beat them up and give a kind of lesson to them that they never dare to insult the Holy Quran,” says a recent Taliban statement over the Quran burning.
All in all, it seems that President Obama, with his Afghan policy, has found himself in a no-win situation. Obama’s attempts to calm down the arch-foes of President Bush by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the government of President Karzai after years of futile war brought no results and look doomed to failure. His recent apologies to Afghans over the Quran burning only added confusion to the whole story. It didn’t reduce the violence, with Americans being attacked in growing numbers and Obama’s effigy burned in Afghanistan’s streets.
Meantime, leading Republican presidential hopefuls are mocking Obama for his Afghan policy and inability to handle the current crisis. “There seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way, and he is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States – period,” says ex-Congressional Speaker Newt Gingrich. He is echoed by Mitt Romney, who insists that Obama made an “enormous error” in announcing the withdrawal dates from the region. “This president has made it more difficult for our fighting men and women to be successful in Afghanistan,” Romney says.
So, it seems that while pulling out of Afghanistan, Obama will probably not be able to get himself out of the retaliating Afghan trap. Is history repeating itself?