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Afghan Report: February 13, 2006

13 February 2006, Volume 5, Number 4
By Ron Synovitz

At least 15 people have been killed across Afghanistan during five days of violent demonstrations over the publication of newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But officials and analysts say it appears that some demonstrations in Afghanistan may be manipulated by individuals trying to advance their own agenda.

There are concerns in Washington that some may be trying to manipulate the anger felt across the Islamic world over the publication by mainly European newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack suggests the governments of Syria and Iran may be encouraging violence: "You can contrast what you have heard from other leaders throughout the region -- Iraqi leaders, Saudi leaders -- asking for a return to calm and calls for restraint from the use of violence with, for example, what we have seen in Syria, where a mob burned to the ground two embassies. And I would just add that not too many spontaneous protests occur in downtown Damascus without at least the knowledge and certainly the support of the Syrian government. With respect to Iran, we also have seen attacks against embassies in Tehran. I would also suggest to you that things like that don't happen without the knowledge and/or assistance of the Iranian government."

Charges Of Manipulation

Concerns about the manipulation of the cartoon crisis aren't restricted to the United States. Fazl Hadi Shinwari is a conservative Islamist who heads Afghanistan's Supreme Court. With at least 15 people killed during protests across his country since early February, Shinwari says Afghan demonstrations have gone awry.

Shinwari told RFE/RL on 7 February that the most violent demonstrations -- the storming of NATO bases or the torching of foreign aid workers' offices -- appear to be manipulations by what he calls "the enemies of Afghanistan." It is a phrase usually reserved by officials in Kabul to describe Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters.

"The demonstrations are changing their nature," he said. "They have gone from being something good to something bad -- from something that was healthy to something that is corrupt. And because of the action of the enemies of the country, it is becoming a destructive movement for Muslims. After this [deadly violence], we request all Muslims -- especially Islamic scholars -- to tell people that these demonstrations have gone too far. If [such violence] goes further, the enemies of Afghanistan will take advantage of this."

Amin Tarzi is an RFE/RL analyst specializing on Afghanistan. He agrees that supporters of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda may be trying to manipulate demonstrations in Afghanistan. But he says some Afghan factional leaders also may be contributing to tensions in a bid to advance their own agenda.

Work Of The 'Spoilers?'

"The fact that the cartoons have enraged Muslims around the world, that is a fact," he said. "And that is there. But in some places -- specifically in Afghanistan -- there is a possibility, and actually it looks like it from the situation on the ground, that the situation is being used by what I call 'the spoilers' -- both domestic and foreign."

Tarzi describes "spoilers" as the armed opponents of Afghanistan's central government -- whether they are neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters or militia troops who are loyal to powerful regional warlords.

"Throughout Afghanistan, what has happened -- I see the hand of the 'spoilers,'" he continued. "The organization of these demonstrations is very, very good. This is not very usual in the Afghan context. And the second thing is that, other than Kabul, most of the demonstrations are focusing on anti-U.S. sentiments rather than anti-Denmark or anti-Norway or anti-France -- the countries where these cartoons were prominently displayed. So the U.S. is not involved in this issue. Yet you see that this is anti- Americanism. [And] this suggests that there is a greater plan."

One demonstration that did target Norwegian forces turned sour on 7 February when protesters stormed the gates of a NATO compound in Maymana -- the capital of Faryab Province. By the end of the day two Dutch F-16 fighters were called in along with British ground troops as reinforcements.

Dostum Vs. Malik

Tarzi says Maymana could be an example of an internal power struggle in a part of Afghanistan where the Afghan central government is not firmly established -- part of an ongoing factional rivalry between the militias of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Abdul Malik.

"Faryab is a province which is [only] under the nominal control of Kabul," Tarzi said. "But [in reality], Faryab is one of the provinces that right now is under the control of General Abdul Rashid Dostum -- who controls about five provinces in northern Afghanistan. However, unlike those other provinces, Faryab is the subject of dispute between [General Dostum] and a former ally of his, General Abdul Malik. There has been sporadic fighting [and] allegations of murders of each other's supporters. So there is a distinct possibility that forces loyal to General Malik may have used the situation to put General Dostum in a precarious situation."

Tarzi stresses that there is no evidence implicating General Malik's supporters in Tuesday's violence. But he says General Malik stands to gain the most from the deployment of additional NATO forces in the area.

"By NATO forces coming into action, what happens is that NATO becomes more proactive -- as we are seeing there -- defending themselves or beefing up their forces," Tarzi said. "This will, in fact, weaken Dostum's grip on Faryab Province. The second issue is that Kabul may become more involved and extend its influence more directly into that region. All of this will help General Malik gain more of a foothold to what he considers to be his place and not Dostum's."

Although Dostum has the title of the chief of staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan, the title is largely symbolic. But Dostum's militia fighters are considered responsible for maintaining security in five northern provinces where they are deployed -- including Faryab.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met on 6 February with Dostum to discuss security in those areas. Tarzi says the meeting indicates there are concerns in Kabul that Dostum is either failing to maintain security properly or needs to do more. He says whatever the cause was behind the violence in Maymana, it certainly has put Dostum on the defensive.

Speaking at a press briefing on 8 February in New York, General James L. Jones, the supreme allied commander of the NATO military alliance, called the ongoing deployment of foreign troops to Afghanistan "by far the most ambitious operation" for NATO since the Cold War. Jones also said by the end of the year, NATO may assume full control of foreign-led operations in the country.

The alliance is now looking to expand its presence into the southern region of Afghanistan, and will then move into in the eastern sector of the country as well. Jones says the major security threat in Afghanistan is not the activities of Al-Qaeda or neo-Taliban fighters, but the drug trade and corruption.

Foreign troops serving under NATO command in Afghanistan's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have been the target of heated attacks in recent days.

The continued outrage over the publication in European newspapers of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad has led to protests in much of the Muslim world.

Some of the worst has been in Afghanistan, where as many as a dozen demonstrators have been killed in protest violence. Four of the deaths took place in the northwest town of Maymana, when hundreds of protesters stormed the gates of a Norwegian military base, leading to a firefight.

'Law And Order'

It remains unclear who is responsible for the shooting deaths of the four protesters. But Jones said the Norwegian ISAF troops acted appropriately under the circumstances.

"In Maymana, where we had the outbreak, the local forces were able to restore law and order, and avoid what could have become a very dangerous situation," Jones said.

He added that the performance of the ISAF troops under the force's commander, Lieutenant General Mauro Del Vecchio was, in his opinion, "very, very consistent with the rules of engagements and capabilities. They exercised restraint, they followed the rules of engagement, and right now, at least as of this morning, calm and order is being restored."

Joining Forces

Commenting on the evolving partnership between the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF actions in Afghanistan, Jones said NATO is looking forward to bringing the missions under the control of a single command and control headquarters, thus completing a plan that was laid out in Munich in 2004.

Jones said Afghanistan is the most visible example of NATO's rapidly changing role in the 21st century. It is a transformation, he said, of not only military capability, but philosophy as well.

"The 20th-century NATO was always conceived to be a static, reactive, defensive alliance. It was never really projected to go anywhere out of area," Jones said. "And the 21st century realities are calling for a NATO that is more agile, more flexible, more expeditionary."

The more aggressive missions in Afghanistan, Jones said, are to be led by the United States Central Command. He said NATO has put into motion structures that will guarantee that all participating nations are doing what they expect to be able to do and that they're doing it in a safe way.

Fighting Terror

He added that each country participating through ISAF in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan is carefully calculating its own level of engagement and the most efficient way to protect its troops.

"The expansion of the alliance in Afghanistan has dealt with the issues of what it is nations are willing to do or not willing to do in terms of counterterrorism and antiterrorism," Jones said. "We have worked that out in such a way that we feel confident that the mission can expand under NATO, and those countries that wish to participate in the more offensive part of the counterterrorist mission are free to do so, and we have a very well-developed mechanism by which they can do so."

Jones said it is important to ensure that NATO helps the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai bring to full capability the instruments of governance, security, and policing that will allow the country to function more independently from NATO efforts.

Drugs, Corruption 'More Serious' Problem

"The situation in Afghanistan, in my view, in terms of threats, is multifaceted. I'm not as much concerned about a return of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda as I am about the success of the war on drugs, which is accounting for about 50 percent of the gross domestic product of that country.

"To me, that's a much more serious problem," he said. "It has its own threats with regard to violence. I would also identify corruption, criminality and other aspects of the 'threat envelope' that face all of us in Afghanistan, not just ISAF."

The supreme allied commander of NATO said the groups have agreed on how to preserve the individual identities of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF.

The command and control mechanism is essentially centered, he said, around the fact that the deputy commander for security will have dual responsibilities -- heading security for the ISAF portion of the mission, and coordinating the more aggressive counterterrorist missions that will be conducted by United States Central Command in coordination with ISAF. (Nikola Krastev)

Sectarian violence erupted in the western Afghan city of Herat on 9 February during the mourning rituals for the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura.

Doctors say at least five people were killed in the western city of Herat today in sectarian violence between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims and close to one hundred people were injured.

The clashes occurred at a temporary camp set up in Herat by Shi'ites celebrating the Islamic holiday of Ashura. RFE/RL's correspondent in Herat reports that the deaths occurred when hand grenades were thrown and gunfire was exchanged at the gathering.

Hundreds of Afghan security troops were deployed across the city early this afternoon in an attempt to keep the violence under control.

The governor of Herat Province, Sayyed Hosayn Anwari, tells RFE/RL that the violence was provoked by a group of Sunni Muslims who entered the Jami' Mosque in the city center and accused Shi'ites of insulting Omar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, who is revered by Sunnis and disliked by the Shi'a,

"Unfortunately today, a group of people entered the Jami' Mosque," he said. "They entered the mosque and were shouting things -- saying that some Shi'ite people from Herat have been insulting Hazrat-e Omar-e Faruq [as the second Caliph is referred to by Afghans]. In fact, this is a lie. This is a provocation."

Anwari says the Afghan Interior Ministry and Afghan intelligence agents are investigating whether the violence may have been instigated by foreigners from neighboring countries like Pakistan or Iran.

"This was organized by irresponsible groups in Herat. There may be foreign involvement behind all of this and that possibility is being investigated. But we know those responsible are the servants of the enemies of Afghanistan. And they are trying to divide Muslims and pit them against each other."

Ahmed Behzad, a member of Afghanistan's lower chamber of parliament from Herat, tells RFE/RL he also thinks the instigators of the 9 February violence receive support from neighboring countries.

"Herat Province, unfortunately, has been a witness for some time to activities by illegal groups -- groups that are still keeping their weapons," he said. "And, unfortunately, they are supported from outside of Afghanistan. I can say directly that they receive orders from outside of Afghanistan and that they are controlled, guided, and organized from abroad."

Sharaf al-Din Stanikzai, RFE/RL's correspondent in Herat, reports seeing Shi'ite Muslims carrying out retaliatory attacks against Sunni Muslims by early on 8 February.

"Angry Shi'a demonstrators have come and attacked the car of a Sunni who was trying to take two injured Sunnis to the hospital," he said. "They are smashing the car windows and mirrors and standing on top of the car. You can hear the sound of this attack now."

Stanikzai says his car and that of a reporter from Voice Of America also were attacked by the angry Shi'ites. Both reporters escaped without injuries.

Sayyed Ahmad Alemi, a doctor at Herat's main hospital, says the bodies of at least five people killed in the clashes were brought to his facility. Alemi says at least 27 injured people also were taken to Herat's main hospital. (Ron Synovitz, with RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondents Sharaf al-Din Stanikzai in Herat, and Freshta Jalalazai and Sami Abass in Prague)

NATO officials at a base in Mazar-e Sharif say they think protests in northern Afghanistan about cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad are likely to subside soon. Some local Afghans agree, saying the storming of NATO bases in response to the European newspaper cartoons does not have wide support in the north. They suspect much of the uproar has been orchestrated by people with links to the insurgency in the south or neighboring countries like Pakistan or Iran. Some suggest rival militia factions in the north also could be trying to manipulate public anger about the cartoons.

NATO officers in Afghanistan say they think violent protests against Western targets have passed their peak in northern cities like Maymana, Sheberghan, and Mazar-e Sharif.

The NATO officers are part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They tell RFE/RL that anger over depictions in European newspapers of the Prophet Muhammad has been exploited by a small number of people.

One British military officer in Mazar-e Sharif says those trying to exploit public anger have "points to score" against ISAF and the West.

Still Supported?

But they say ISAF retains strong legitimacy in northern Afghanistan -- and that the violence is likely to subside in the days ahead.

Captain Gareth Davis is the operations officer at ISAF's northern regional command. He told RFE/RL that violent demonstrations outside of several NATO bases in Afghanistan follow a familiar pattern and should not affect the stabilization effort in the long term.

"I think it will be a spike [of violence] and everything will go quiet again," he said. "There have been previous incidents like this -- both in Afghanistan and all over the world -- from varying sources, whether it be a reaction to something in Guantanamo Bay or something like that. There has been this type of incident before [and] that has all been cleared up. And there hasn't been a long-lasting effect against [NATO personnel] here."

On 7 February, a demonstration in the northwestern city of Maymana turned violent when several hundred protesters stormed a base staffed by a Norwegian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team. Rioters threw rocks, Molotov cocktails and, according to some reports, hand grenades. They also exchanged gunfire with militia troops loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the forces that currently are responsible for security in Faryab and other northern provinces.

NATO immediately sent two planes full of British soldiers to Maymana as reinforcements. They are part of a rapid response unit stationed near Mazar-e Sharif. Six Danish soldiers in ISAF also were evacuated to Mazar-e Sharif. They were considered at risk because Danish newspapers had been the first to publish the offending cartoons.

Major Fred Whichelo is ISAF's intelligence officer at the NATO base in Mazar-e Sharif -- a forward operations base that serves as headquarters for a joint civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Whichelo tells RFE/RL that he does not think the violent protests have jeopardized ISAF's relations with the local population.

"We have got, generally, very good consent from the population here in the north of Afghanistan," Whichelo said. "There have been instances in the past of other controversies. They have passed by without significant violence or difficulty in the north. And that is because we do maintain an extremely good relationship with the local people by having one of those [NATO-led] observation teams on the ground talking to people at the local level."

Claims Of Outside Interference

Both Whichelo and Davis say that although they have no hard evidence at this time, they suspect violence at protests in the north has been orchestrated by people with links to the insurgency in the south, to neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran, or to disputes between rival Afghan militias in the north.

Captain Davis said the violence was organized by people "with points to prove" against ISAF and the West. This, he said, was virtually certain to have been the case in Kabul where clashes between police and protesters also have occurred outside of NATO and U.S. compounds.

"In Kabul I would say the violence they have had in Kabul is almost definitely caused by people with a massive point to prove," he said. "Not just because they want to prove a point about those Danish cartoons, but because they want [to strike at] ISAF or have a go at Westerners. There are enough people in Kabul who think like that."

Major Whichelo says Mazar-e Sharif has suffered a series of attacks in the past six months linked to outside militants -- or at least carried out by locals known to have sought religious instruction at some of Pakistan's more radical madrassahs.

Previous Violence

A British soldier was killed in an ambush in October by a gunman who had recently returned from Pakistan. A home-made explosive device killed two Swedish soldiers in November. A suicide bomber bungled a December attack in Mazar-e Sharif -- killing only himself with his explosives. Another would-be suicide bomber was arrested by Afghan security forces earlier this week before he could attempt to assassinate a local commander at the center of recent factional disputes in the north.

Police chief Mohammad Nur -- a man with considerable influence around Mazar-e Sharif -- says he agrees that the violence runs counter to the feelings of most Afghans in the north.

Nur told RFE/RL that "elements outside Afghanistan" who may be trying to manipulate anger over the cartoons are those who are unhappy about the presence of NATO-led ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Nur insists that 90 percent of the Afghan people rely on ISAF and are quite content with their presence.

Nur said it is a small group of people who are trying to use the cartoon controversy to undermine NATO in Afghanistan: "As you know, every country has its problems. There are a limited number of people who oppose the government. So we can also say about this case that there is a very limited number of people [involved in the violent demonstrations]. Not all of the people of Afghanistan are [protesting]."

Nur concludes that ISAF will remain important for Afghanistan for as long as security remains important to the Afghan people. (Ahto Lobjakas)