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Will Quran-Burning Investigation Quell Anger in Afghanistan?

February 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Hundreds of protesters voiced their anger at NATO and American forces Wednesday in Afghanistan after some U.S. troops were seen putting Qurans in a burn pit for trash. Jeffrey Brown and Heidi Vogt of The Associated Press in Kabul discuss the spreading anger and the implications for U.S.-Afghan relations.
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TRANSCRIPT

A short time ago, I talked to Heidi Vogt of the Associated Press in Kabul.

Heidi, thanks for joining us.

Now, an investigation is promised, but what, if anything, is known at this point about the initial incident? Why — why were the soldiers taking the Korans to a garbage dump?

HEIDI VOGT, Associated Press: Well, we’ve had a few officials tell us anonymously that what was of concern was some of these writings in the margins of some of these religious texts.

Some of these texts were coming in from Pakistan and had extremist language. These were in the detention facility. And so the officials there decided they needed to get rid of these. And, somehow, deciding to get rid of them turned into taking them to the incineration pit. And that’s where all the trouble started.

JEFFREY BROWN: Heidi, when you’re — you’re talking about writings in the Koran? Just fill that fill that in a little bit for us. What kind of writings are you talking about, and do we know who was doing the writings that were found in these detention centers?

HEIDI VOGT: That is a little unclear right now.

What we’ve been told is that there were notes made on these religious tests — texts. Now, they’re not all Korans. Some are other tracks. And it looks like it may have been messages between detainees, or sometimes it may have just been extremist messages that are promoting a very radical form of Islam.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tell us more about how these protests have spread. What kind of impact is it having there throughout the country?

HEIDI VOGT: Well, yesterday, at the first real day of protests, there were about 2,000 people protesting outside of the Bagram Air Base. Today, we had at least four or five provinces with protests.

In the capital alone, there were three different spots with protests. And they really started to turn into riots. There were stones being thrown. There were fuel tankers set on fire in a couple places. Police and protesters clashed. And we had at least nine people dead, dozens wounded. And so it really turned into something much more violent today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, of course, the U.S. and NATO have apologized quickly. And this comes as the U.S. is setting about cutting back and trying to eventually end the involvement in Afghanistan.

Can you tell to what degree they were taken by surprise or what is going on behind the scenes at this point?

HEIDI VOGT: Well, I mean, General Allen did say he heard about this the same night that it happened.

I don’t think anybody expected that this would be the type of thing, 10 years in, that there would still would be mistakes being made about the treatment of the Koran. Everyone knows this is a very sensitive issue. And I think everybody’s shocked that this can still happen in Afghanistan.

I mean, there are certainly accusations of desecration that happen all the time in this country. Soldiers are told to be very careful going into mosques, this sort of thing. So it’s surprising, I think, to everybody that it can still happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what of President Karzai? We quoted him as calling for calm. Is he also expressing anger? What kind of role is he playing at this point?

HEIDI VOGT: Well, we’re seeing two things from Karzai, which is not so surprising.

Both — he has called for calm, as you said. That happened this evening. Late into the night, after things had already calmed down, he said protesters shouldn’t get violent. He also said that police should be protecting protesters.

But, at the same time, he has used this as an opportunity to say, you know, we have been saying the Afghans should be in charge of this detention facility at Parwan, and if Afghans were in charge, this type of thing wouldn’t happen.

So he’s also using it as a political tool.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mention that there have been some similar instances of this sort over the years. Does this one feel — does this one feel real different, of a different magnitude?

HEIDI VOGT: Well, this one is interesting, in that it’s clear that there was an error.

There are often a lot of allegations on the part of Afghans of Koran desecration, but it’s usually a case of he said/she said. Here, NATO officials have come out and said, yes, this happened. We did something wrong.

They’re trying to get out ahead of it, obviously. It’s — so, in that sense, it does give an opportunity, possibly, for some sort of calm way of dealing with it. We don’t know if it’s going to work. The last time there was confirmation of a Koran burned was a year ago in Florida by a pastor, and then we had mobs up in a northern city that killed 12 people. So it could get pretty bad.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where you — from where you sit tonight, is there an expectation of any sense of what happens tomorrow, in the coming days?

HEIDI VOGT: Well, it could go a couple of different ways.

The investigation may come out with a finding as early as tomorrow. That could have a calming effect. At the same time, we have had the clerics council saying that, if people aren’t held responsible, NATO forces are the ones who should be held responsible for all these deaths.

So you could see more anger tomorrow. Also, sometimes, news spreads slowly in Afghanistan. We might see more of a reaction in other parts of the country tomorrow. Today, most of this was in Eastern Afghanistan. We don’t know if we might see more in the west or in the south.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Heidi Vogt of the AP in Kabul, thanks so much.

HEIDI VOGT: Thanks.