Washington, 13 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military investigators have not yet found any evidence that American interrogators treated the Koran with disrespect.
Myers said the U.S. military is very respectful of Islam and its holy book. He pointed out that the Korans distributed to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been approved by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
However, Myers said investigators have so far found only one piece of evidence that a Koran had been misused -- and that was allegedly by an Afghan prisoner, not by an American.
"They cannot confirm yet that there was 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 [them] in the toilet to stop it up as a protest," Myers said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her concerns about the desecration claims yesterday during testimony before Congress.
"Respect for the religious freedom of all individuals is one of the founding principles of the United States. The protection of a person's right to worship freely and without harassment is a principle that the government and the people of the United States take very seriously. Guaranteeing religious rights is of great personal importance to [President George W. Bush] and to me," Rice said.
Rice said U.S. military authorities are investigating the allegations fully, and that if proven true, "appropriate action" will be taken. Rice also called on Muslims around the world to reject those who preach violence in an effort to "mischaracterize" U.S. intentions.
"These kinds of wars are ultimately political." - analyst
As for the protests in Afghanistan, Myers said the U.S. commander there, General Karl Eikenberry, believes the report about the alleged defiling of the Koran is being used as a pretext by Afghan demonstrators to air their primary grievance -- that is, their objections to President Hamid Karzai's efforts to maintain close relations with the United States.
"The violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan," Myers said.
Radek Sikorski is a former Polish deputy foreign minister and defense minister who specializes in Afghanistan at the American Enterprise Institute, a private Washington policy center. He agrees that many Afghans are unimpressed with Karzai's drive to forge closer ties with the United States.
Sikorski told RFE/RL that he suspects there is a gap in understanding between Afghanistan's leaders, who may be more concerned with the country's external affairs, and the Afghan people, who are focusing more on cultural and religious issues.
Sikorski believes that while it has the friendship of Karzai and other Afghan leaders, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is faltering in its effort to win the favor of ordinary Afghans. He cites reports of the fatal abuse of prisoners at the U.S. military base in Baghram, outside Kabul.
"What happened and probably is still happening at Baghram, where people died in American custody -- I mean, you don't have to be a conservative Muslim to be offended by that. So clearly much stricter oversight of what U.S. forces in the field are doing is needed," Sikorski said.
Sikorski told RFE/RL that the U.S. Defense Department must be more careful about respecting Islam, or else Washington's good work -- driving out the Taliban and helping stabilize Afghanistan -- will be for nothing.
"These kinds of wars are ultimately political," he said. "You need to persuade the local population that you are on their side. And on the whole, I think, in Afghanistan, [the United States has] done it right, much better than in Iraq. The U.S. footprint is small, the U.S. is not seen as an occupier. It will be a terrible shame if we lost what essentially is still a success story."
Sikorski says it was a mistake for Washington to neglect Afghanistan during the 1990s. He says this neglect allowed the country to become a haven for Al-Qaeda, blamed for the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Afghanistan and the United States need each other, Sikorski says. The relationship provides Afghanistan with the political and financial stability it needs to give root to a strong democratic society. For its part, Sikorski says, the United States needs a friendly Afghanistan now, just as it has needed it for decades -- first to help weaken the Soviet Union, and today to prevent it from again becoming a haven for anti-U.S. militants.See also: Afghan Protests Turn Violent