KABUL, Afghanistan — Shouting “Down with America!” and “Death to the infidels!” hundreds of protesters made their way from Kabul University, on the western outskirts of the capital, to the center of the city on Sunday.
They were reacting to rumors, vigorously denied by the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, that American troops had burned several copies of the Koran in a province close to Kabul.
Police tried to contain the demonstrators by the university, but as their ranks swelled with students from the nearby Polytechnic and the Education University, the police relaxed their cordon and the crowds entered the city. A separate group gathered near the parliament.
By noon the worst of it was over, with no casualties reported, although the police fired warning shots in the air at some locations. But the demonstrations were just the latest in a series of protests that have swept Afghanistan since rumors of a Koran-burning incident in Wardak province began to circulate over a week ago. At least two people have been killed and several injured in the earlier protests, and there are few signs that the rage is dying down.
This could be very bad news for the new policy introduced by commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal has insisted that the protection of the Afghan population should be paramount for the troops under his command. Winning hearts and minds, rather than killing or capturing Taliban, would be the first priority, he has repeatedly said.
But judging by the recent waves of protests, this will be a hard sell in a country where security is deteriorating daily, and where the local population often feels caught between a brutal insurgency and an equally unpalatable occupation. Anti-American sentiment runs deep here, and requires just a small spark to ignite.
The latest violence was prompted by rumors that U.S. soldiers had burned several copies of the Holy Koran in retaliation for an attack by insurgents. The U.S. forces reject the accusations and hint that the Taliban themselves perpetrated the offense to use as a propaganda ploy.
The Wardak province governor’s spokesman defends the foreign troops and points the finger at local drug addicts. But despite efforts to defuse the situation, university students and local residents in at least five provinces so far have taken to the streets to protest against the perceived insult to their culture and their religion.
The trouble began on Oct. 15, when U.S. forces were out on patrol in Wardak, a province just 25 miles from Kabul.
According to villagers from Khwajagan village, an American tank hit an improvised explosive device (IED) just outside their town. The soldiers then began a house-to-house search, they said, and, not finding the insurgents who planted the mine, directed their wrath by seizing and burning six copies of the Koran.
“We saw the burned Korans,” said Khwaja Qandol, who lives in the village. “The Americans went to Khwaja Fazlurahman’s house, where only women were at home, and they took six Korans from a cabinet and burned them in the middle of the room. Four of the women witnessed this and told us about it. We went and saw that the Korans had really been burned.”
This version of events is completely rejected by the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
“There was no incident in which ISAF forces burned Korans in Wardak,” said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, of the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan public affairs office. “ISAF and Afghan forces conducted an investigation of the incident and determined that ‘the enemies of Afghanistan,’ as reported by local authorities, were responsible for the burning.”
Shahidullah Shahid, spokesman for the governor of Wardak, confirmed that Korans were burned, but assigned blame to three local youths who, he said, were addicted to hashish.
“We have begun a serious investigation into this incident,” he said. “The U.S. forces in Wardak respect the people’s culture and traditions. Last week they provided dozens of copies of the Koran as well as prayer-cloths to the local council in Jalrez district.”
But another government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Americans were indeed behind the incident.
“The government of Wardak is hiding this incident in order to avoid problems,” he said.
The provincial government did appear eager to protect the Americans, something confirmed by the U.S. forces spokesperson.
“A mullah from the local Afghan National Army unit addressed people in Wardak earlier this week,” said Mathias. “In his comments, the mullah … described how the Taliban has used this tactic of burning the Holy Koran then blaming international forces to inflame the public in several provinces, and that these actions disrespect Islam and Afghanistan.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, Afghans seemed only too eager to believe the worst. Within days the news had spread throughout the country. Protests began in the capital of Wardak, Maidan Shahr. On Oct. 17, hundreds of students and residents marched in what they said was a peaceful protest against the insult to the Koran. They blocked the main road, which links Kandahar to Kabul, for more than three hours.
“We informed the police one day in advance that we were going to have a demonstration,” said one student from the local vocational school of agriculture, who was afraid to give his name because the local security forces had warned residents not to talk to the media. “But the police acted illegally. They shot at us, and firefighters directed water canons at us. One person was wounded and five others were arrested.”
The governor’s spokesman denied the student’s statement. “There was no advance notice,” said Shahid. “The demonstrations started spontaneously. The police began shooting in the air and dousing the protesters with water in order to avoid chaos. No one has been arrested and no one has been wounded.”
Wardak, like many other provinces in Afghanistan, has seen a recent spike in insurgent activity. Kabul residents with roots in Wardak say they can no longer visit family in their home villages, because the Taliban controls the roads and are notoriously suspicious of visitors from the capital.
U.S. troops have moved into the area, but have not as yet conducted large-scale military offensives. Instead, complain local residents, their presence provokes the kinds of attacks that sparked the Koran-burning incident.
Following the protests in Wardak, groups demonstrated in Nangahar, Kandahar, Khost, Logar, and, on Friday, on the outskirts of Kabul. Two people were killed, reportedly when Afghan National Police forces fired in the air.
In Afghanistan, with a high degree of illiteracy and an underdeveloped media sector, rumors often gain the status of truth. This makes it relatively easy for those in control of informal communications networks to spread whatever version of events they like. Rumors can serve as a spur to action, sometimes disastrously so. Unconfirmed reports that U.S. soldiers had desecrated the Koran in the Guantanamo Bay detention center three years ago caused riots that left at least four people dead and scores injured.
“In Afghanistan, rumors often become reality,” said Kim Barker, Edward R. Murrow media fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. forces recognize the problem, even as they try to put their own spin on the recent events.
“I’m concerned because a rumor has gained such traction,” said Mathias. “Though insurgents often force people to demonstrate and propagate rumor to disrupt security.”
Habiburrahman Ibrahimi contributed to this report from Wardak.