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Afghans’ Rising Fury

May 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: In the Afghan capital of Kabul, angry Muslim men chanted “death to America” and burned an American flag. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, they set fire to two United Nations buildings and the Pakistani consulate.

The last four days of violent protests, with police shooting into crowds, were sparked by a short Newsweek report. The subject: An internal army inquiry into alleged abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Among the alleged incidents, Newsweek said: “…interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet.”

The report brought thousands into the streets in Jalalabad, then Kabul, eventually spreading to more than half of Afghanistan’s 17 provinces and to neighboring Pakistan. On Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the violence was more religious than political.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: It is not the anti-American sentiment. It is a protest over news of the desecration of the Holy Koran in Guantanamo.

MARGARET WARNER: But some demonstrators said they were protesting Karzai’s proposal to establish permanent U.S. bases in their country. Secretary of State Rice addressed the incident yesterday.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I want to speak directly to Muslims in America and throughout the world. Disrespect for the Holy Koran is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be tolerated by the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the investigation so far hasn’t confirmed that specific incident.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: They cannot confirm yet that there were ever the case of the toilet incident, except for one case, a log entry, which they still have to confirm, where a detainee was reported by a guard to be ripping pages out of a Koran and putting it in the toilet to stop it up as a protest.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, the demonstrations spread elsewhere in the Muslim world, including Gaza and Indonesia.

MARGARET WARNER: To assess what’s driving these protests in Afghanistan, we’re joined by: Barnett Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University; he’s written several books about Afghanistan, and he’s informally advised the Karzai government; and Amin Tarzi, an Afghanistan analyst at Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, an overseas broadcasting outlet funded partly by the U.S. government. He was born in Europe to Afghan parents and has written widely about Afghanistan.

Welcome to you both. Mr. Tarzii, how could a single sentence item in Newsweek magazine spark protests like this?

AMIN TARZI: The sentence is very strong. For Muslims, the Koran is basically what Jesus Christ would mean to Christians or the Torah to the Jews; however in my personal view I think it’s beyond that. This was a spark that somebody else is fueling, some other elements are fueling this protest; it’s just not that, the spark was there. This could reach, you know, could create rage in every Muslim country, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Koran has significance that is different than most Arab countries where even the book itself, people, you know, kiss it, people wrap it in silk cloth; they put it in the highest place in their rooms, and if it falls on the ground, they actually give special blessings, a special manyate, to be forgiven.

So it is — it is very strong insult to them. It is maybe the most strong insult you can do. Koran is more like a living word of God, it’s not just evoked. However, again, as I said, the organization, the methods and the demands of — has told me that it may be more than that?

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you see it, Barnett Rubin, a potent symbol but it’s also morphed into protests about more?

BARNETT RUBIN: Yes, I think that as Amin says it’s a potent symbol that really mobilizes people because when people hear that, they know that other Muslims or other Afghans will feel the same way. But I’ve noticed for some time now that there are undercurrents of discontent and resentment. Your reporter mentioned the statement by President Karzai about long term U.S. military bases, which has caused a lot of suspicion.

There was another demonstration in eastern Afghanistan that didn’t get any international coverage several months ago when U.S. soldiers arrested a woman and people started talking about starting jihad again. The behavior of the coalition soldiers in as Afghans see it, insulting women, dishonoring people by going into their houses, killing civilians, and so on, plus all the stories, which are pretty well-documented now of torture in Guantanamo and detention centers by the U.S. military in Afghanistan as well as a number of well-documented cases of homicide in detention, have all caused a lot of resentment. But it’s this very potent religious symbol that finally crystallizes it all and brings people out on the streets.

MARGARET WARNER: How deep do you think the anti-American sentiment is, and why in Afghanistan?

AMIN TARZI: In my view Afghanistan is a unique case in the Muslim world and where the U.S. has a presence. And here we have the military there. By and large, Americans are welcome. There are elements that did not like the Americans, of course, the obvious ones were defeated. But within the population at least in my in my trips there, I noticed that there is a good will towards America.

This includes the military; as Barney had just said maybe that goodwill is being tarnished with all these events and the reports, but I think by and large there was a good will; there was an understanding that maybe the U.S. finally gives Afghanistan a new chance. So again, I am surprised to see American flags being burned the way they are. That to me personally, when I look at the events of the past three days and the way they are organized, I just think that it is — it goes beyond the issue, even the alleged issue that happened in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

MARGARET WARNER: Barnett Rubin, do you share Mr. Tarzi’s view that this does look coordinated as if somebody was at least talking advantage of this symbol, and if so, who had an interest to do so? Who might it be?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, there’s no one who has the capacity to coordinate all these things. It’s possible that some — in eastern Afghanistan some pro-Taliban elements or some groups based in Pakistan might be behind it, and particularly they turn to violence in Jalalabad, which doesn’t seem to have been the intention of the students who started the protests, but those groups have no reach in northeast and northwest Afghanistan where there were also protests today.

Besides pro-Taliban elements we’ve also seen underground leaflets against the United States by anti-Taliban elements from a different point of view. Certainly, the United States is by no means hated in Afghanistan the way it is in much of the Muslim world, and particularly in Pakistan. And Afghans, in fact, welcome the U.S. presence as a shield against the interference from their neighbors. But what they often say is they’re welcome here as long as they are here to help us, not if they are here to occupy us. And I think that especially after statements like President Karzai’s, which most Afghans would think he made under U.S. pressure, whether or not that’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean about the bases.

BARNETT RUBIN: About long-term U.S. — about the bases, yes, they will start to question whether they are here to help Afghanistan or whether they are there to occupy Afghanistan in the U.S.’s own interest.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Tarzi you had introduced this idea that it has been coordinated; who do you think has an interested interest in doing it and could it be as Mr. Rubin suggested a couple of different groups?

AMIN TARZI: Of course it’s all speculation. I mean, nobody knows exactly what is happening. As I say, the important trigger, the trigger was there. The fuel I think — what has happened is that the demands, what interests me are two things. Number one, the demands from day one, even before the protests turned violent, when it started at the university, the demands included apology from the United States, the trial of these alleged wrongdoers, but most importantly, the issue that we just heard, the issue of the bases, that the United States should not have –

MARGARET WARNER: What does that tell you?

AMIN TARZI: This tells me this is already beyond the issue of Guantanamo Bay and somebody else who does not want the bases wanted this issue raised.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But who are we talking about? I mean, I noticed the Taliban commander issued a statement also talking about the bases. Pakistani clerics at Friday prayers today were urging more demonstrations, though they said be peaceful. I mean, how many different actors are there in this?

AMIN TARZI: One thing you mentioned in your report earlier, the Pakistani consulate and the consul’s house were destroyed, and I don’t think this was a wanton act. There are people who lost very much in the October elections in Afghanistan, I mean the presidential elections.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the Northern Alliance.

AMIN TARZI: The Northern Alliance, some of their foreign supporters, perhaps Iran, that do not want to see a — they cannot say that the United States should leave Afghanistan. Right now that is not the word — you cannot say that and function in the Afghan government or the parliament.

So this gives them a very good way to say what they want to say but cannot say it. And I do not have any evidence that any foreign country is involved, but I don’t think it’s Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Barnett Rubin, finally how serious a test is this for this young Afghan government and for the United States?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, that will depend really on how long this goes on and whether it continues to spread. I think it’s a major test though because it is the first more or less nationwide significant challenge to the legitimacy of the whole operation. By no means should we interpret this to mean that Afghans want the United States to leave, or even that most of the demonstrators really want the United States to leave.

But I think it shows that it’s very easy to wear out your welcome, that the United States is welcome in Afghanistan only on certain conditions, and that we have to be very careful. I might mention other things people haven’t gotten the economic benefits they expected from reconstruction. They have been pressured to reduce their production of opium without receiving any assistance significant, of significant amounts in return. So they are looking to see, is the United States really there to help them or is the United States there just to hunt down the people who did Sept. 11, establish bases, and so on in its own interest?

MARGARET WARNER: Final word from you, briefly.

AMIN TARZI: I think -

MARGARET WARNER: As a test -

AMIN TARZI: I think the test is exactly how they can handle this. How many casualties are there — casualties are mounting — and how the reaction both from the United States and from Hamid Harzai’s government will be to basically heal this.

MARGARET WARNER: Amin Tarzi and Barnett Rubin, thank you both.

AMIN TARZI: Thank you.