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Afghan Report: May 17, 2005

17 May 2005, Volume 4, Number 16
By Amin Tarzi

The trigger that launched the deadly and destructive student-led demonstrations which began peacefully on 10 May in the eastern Nangarhar Province and spread to at least 13 other provinces around Afghanistan are well known. What is less understood is who has been fueling these rallies and for what purpose.

In its 9 May issue, the U.S.-based magazine "Newsweek" alleged that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." This news sparked an angry reaction from students at the medical college at Nangarhar University, located on the outskirts of Jalalabad, the provincial capital.

Initially the students held a peaceful rally and tried to block the main road connecting Jalalabad to Kabul. They also read a statement which called on Islamic countries to show their anger over the alleged desecration of the Koran by holding demonstrations; demanded that the United States release all of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay; and condemned Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decision to request that the U.S. build military bases in Afghanistan.

Anti-United States and Afghan government sentiment beyond the "Newsweek" story were apparent from the outset of the rallies. For the first time since communists ruled the country in the 1980s or when the Taliban were in charge in the late 1990s, U.S. flags were burned on Afghan soil. Chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Karzai" were coming from the protestors.

On 11 May, the demonstrators became violent, entering the city of Jalalabad and destroying government properties and buildings housing the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan as well as a nongovernmental organization. The protestors also damaged the Pakistani consulate and the counsel's residence. Four protestors were killed and scores injured before Afghan security and military forces regained control.

Violence continued on 12 May in the Khogiani District of Nangarhar, in the Chak District of Wardak Province to west of Nangarhar, claiming three more lives.

Afghan authorities have blamed the "enemies of peace and stability" for turning an otherwise peaceful demonstration, which President Karzai has called a "manifestation of democracy" in his country, into a violent confrontation. The authorities have not identified these elements, nor have any of the dozen or so people arrested in connection to the Jalalabad events been linked to any particular group.

On 12 May, demonstrators in Kabul and other cities, made more specific demands, including an apology from the United States; a trial by an Islamic court of those who allegedly carried out the act of desecration; a promise from the U.S. that such an act will not be repeated; and that U.S.-led coalition forces do not enter the houses of people during search operations.

A day later, on 13 May, the demonstrations spread to northeastern Badakhshan and southeastern Paktiya provinces, where four more people were reported to have been killed, bringing the death toll to 11.

Underlying Factors

One of the protestors in Kabul on 12 May held a sign in Pashto which read: "The Holy Koran is Our Soul!" For Muslims, their holy book has an importance that can get lost if compared to the meaning of the Bible to Christians. According to the "Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World," for Muslims the Koran is "alive and has quasi-human personality." It is perhaps similar to what Jesus Christ is to devout Christians or the Torah is for Jews. As such, any act of disrespect of the Koran is viewed as an affront to God and his laws. Therefore, the anger expressed by the students at Nangarhar University is understandable when considered in this context. However the fact that the protests of the demonstrators went from the alleged case of disrespect for the Koran to the issue of the United States establishing military bases in Afghanistan, searches of private home by U.S. troops, and Karzai government's alliance with Washington, may be an indication of the existence of other agendas behind the rallies.

Moreover, the demonstrators in Jalalabad were targeting specific buildings to attack. It was not a wanton act of violence. As such, targeting Pakistani diplomatic establishments in the city may not be without significance. Despite Islamabad's claim that its consulate was not targeted on purpose, questions are raised as to why this particular foreign diplomatic mission was singled out.

The issue of U.S. bases in Afghanistan has been on the front page of most Afghan publications for some time. Particularly since Karzai formally proposed a "strategic partnership" on 8 May before an assembly of some 1,000 well-known Afghans. The most common reaction to the military-base issue is that final the decision should be left to the Afghan parliament, which is scheduled to be elected in September. Many Afghan politicians, especially those who have lost power recently, have equated the presence of the U.S. military in the country with a continuation of Karzai's administration. While not openly critical of the U.S. and the rest of the foreign military presence in the country, these politicians have expressed uneasiness about the issue. The demonstrations loudly echoed those hushed sentiments.

The issue of searching homes is more isolated and localized to Nangarhar. In late April, a demonstration by representatives of the Khogiani, Sherzad, Hesarak, and Pachir wa Agam districts was held in Jalalabad protesting such searches. Nangarhar Governor Haji Din Mohammad, after meeting with representatives of the demonstrators, promised to solve the problem (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 May 2005). As such, the inclusion of this issue in the demands of demonstrators coming from Nangarhar is not surprising, but the fact that this issue made its way to the Kabul University campus illustrates a more organized planning for what ought to have been spontaneous rallies if they were triggered only by the "Newsweek" story and not fueled by other factors.

The attack on the Pakistani Consulate also is worth pondering. Why would students ostensibly angered by an alleged act by U.S. interrogators burn the diplomatic mission of a country that has officially contacted Washington on the issue and its parliament has condemned the alleged act with the Koran? If the allegation about abuse of the Koran was central to the demonstrations, Pakistan's consulate should have received praise, not firebombs.

Is Someone Behind The Demonstrations?

Thus far both the Afghan government and the demonstrators have refused to identify the "enemies of peace and stability" who are allegedly behind the violence, including the attack on the Pakistani Consulate.

No one has pointed a finger at the neo-Taliban and the militia's spokesman, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, told Kabul-based Tolu Television on 11 May that they had not provoked the demonstrations. Also, Jalalabad is not considered a neo-Taliban stronghold, and Badakhshan is one of only two provinces in Afghanistan that the former Taliban regime could not conquer.

On 11 May -- a night letter reminiscent of the days when Afghans were struggling against Soviet troops in their country -- was circulated in parts of Kabul. Without making any reference to the events in Jalalabad, the letter announced that the "principle duty of the Mujahedin has just started." The unsigned letter condemns the possibility of the establishment of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and alleges that Karzai and the former Taliban members are in an alliance with the purpose of turning Afghanistan into a U.S. satellite state.

The timing of the demonstrations and the demands associated with them seem to be well coordinated to coincide with President Karzai's visit to Europe and the United States.

Which countries in Afghanistan's neighborhood oppose the development of a long-term U.S.-Afghan partnership -- if such a thing is indeed accepted by both states' leaders and by the Afghan parliament? Or, who has lost power since Karzai's victory in October's presidential elections? If a clear answer can be found to these questions, then perhaps the true identity of those fueling the demonstrations in Afghanistan would also be known.

By Amin Tarzi

Demonstrations, some of them violent, have recently rocked Afghanistan as well as several other countries with Muslim majorities. In Afghanistan, these demonstrations, led initially by students, have claimed at least 14 lives. Ostensibly, these demonstrations began in protest at a short report in the U.S.-based "Newsweek" on 9 May, which alleged that interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba "in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet."

"Newsweek" has since admitted that the story was not completely accurate. In the magazine's 23 May issue, the "Newsweek" editor said, "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

While there are reasons to believe that the demonstrations in Afghanistan are fueled by factors not related to the report about the desecration of the Koran, the report touches an extremely sensitive issue among Muslims -- especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For most Muslims, their holy book represents more than a text of the words of God. The Koran not only represents the living message of God to humankind, but also it is believed to have powers that would render it as a living thing.

Surah 59, Verse 21 of the Koran states that "Had We sent down this Koran on a mountain, verily, you would have seen it humble itself and cleave asunder."

Muslims are instructed to handle the Koran only when clean. Surah 56, Verse 79 requires that "none shall touch [the Koran] but those who are clean."

Among Afghans and Pakistanis, the Koran itself is regarded as a holy relic and some regard it as having supernatural powers. The book is usually wrapped in expensive cloths and placed at the highest place in the room. Those who handle the Koran traditionally kiss it several times and rub it to their eyes, before reading it. The same ritual is repeated after the reading is done. If a copy of the Koran accidentally falls on the floor, Afghans usually give special offerings in God's name for forgiveness.

On 12 May, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, addressing a committee of the U.S. Senate, opened her remarks by saying that disrespect "for the Holy Koran is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be, tolerated in the United States." Rice added that any disrespect for the Muslims' holy book is "abhorrent" to the United States.

It is difficult to know whether a preemptive statement on the allegation made by "Newsweek" would have calmed Muslim sentiments around the world, especially in Afghanistan where the protests became violent and bloody. However, religious communities in those countries and elsewhere in the Muslim world could also have tried to prevent the demonstrations from being hijacked, as the case in Afghanistan increasingly suggests, by other political aspirations.

U.S.-based "Newsweek" said on 15 May that a recent report it published about the desecration of the Koran at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may have been inaccurate (see features above).

The acknowledgment came after several days of violent protests and riots in Afghanistan during which government buildings and offices of aid organizations were ransacked and set on fire. Several people were killed and scores injured in the unrest that erupted in several provinces across the country. The report also sparked protests in Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Gaza Strip.

Dan Klaidman, who is Washington bureau chief of "Newsweek," on 15 May expressed regret for the deaths in Afghanistan.

"We feel that we did our due diligence but sometimes mistakes get made and we think that, in this case, that is what happened," Klaidman said.

The brief report published in the weekly's 9 May edition quoted unidentified sources as saying that military investigators probing prisoner abuse at the U.S. detention facility found that interrogators had placed copies of the Koran on toilets and "in at least one case, flushed the holy book down the toilet."

The weekly said in its 23 May edition that the original source of the report -- which it referred to as "a knowledgeable U.S. government source" -- has since said he is uncertain where he initially read about the mishandling of the Koran.

Newsweek says that before publishing the item, reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry asked two Defense Department officials for comment on the story. One declined to respond, and the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Koran charge.

President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin told RFE/RL that the "Newsweek" acknowledgment that it may have erred will help ease tensions and bring calm among people.

"We are really angry that the principles of journalism have not been followed correctly and the report they published was apparently not according to the truth. On the one hand, the acceptance of their mistake is right, of course, because it was an important issue and it removes the problem, but it is totally regrettable that the journalistic standard has been [so low] that this very sensitive issue has been dealt with irresponsibly," Ludin said.

"Newsweek" said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita told the magazine late last week that its original story was incorrect. The Pentagon spokesman said the military investigated other allegations of Koran desecration made by several released detainees, but had not found them credible.

Siamak Herawi is the former chief editor of the Kabul-based daily "Anis" and a media specialist in President Karzai's communications office. He says "Newsweek" should have been more careful in its coverage.

"I am deeply sorry for ['Newsweek'] that it published a news item that caused the deaths of 16 people and the injuring of more than 40 people. 'Newsweek' and other publications in the world should be very careful, because [such] news items can lead to the death of thousands of people in Afghanistan or other places. So, until they have done complete research and checked the credibility of the news, I think it's better if they do not publish it. And right now I think their apology won't do any good to the families who have lost their children," Herawi said.

Larry Kilman is the communication director of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers, a nongovernmental organization that represents more than 18,000 publications around the world.

"It's a very unfortunate situation that they weren't 100 percent on their sourcing in this because it is an incredibly provocative story and it's unfortunate for 'Newsweek' -- and quite frankly unfortunate for journalism -- if it turns out to be that they did not have the story. I don't think you run with a story like that unless you have it 100 percent," Kilman said.

"Newsweek" says the magazine will continue looking into the charges.

"This was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll continue to report on it," Reuters quoted "Newsweek" managing editor Jon Meacham as saying.

Afghan officials have said that "enemies of peace and stability " and outsiders took advantage of people's religious sentiments and outrage over the 'Newsweek' report and instigated the violence. Several foreigners have been reportedly arrested in connection with last week's violence.

On 15 May, President Karzai said that some U.S. military actions in Afghanistan have created resentment among ordinary Afghans that could be contributing to the tension.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan said today that an investigation has been launched into the allegations regarding the defiling of the Koran. Colonel Gary Cheek, who commands U.S.-led troops in eastern Afghanistan, told reporters that the United States will increase its efforts to win the trust and respect of Afghans.

He said: "We will redouble our efforts to communicate with the Afghan people and let them know that we're here for their security and that we're here to help rebuild their country." (Golnaz Esfandiari)

President Hamid Karzai called on more 1,000 representatives from around Afghanistan to come to Kabul to debate a strategic partnership with the United States, including the possibility of the establishment of permanent military bases in Afghanistan, AFP reported on 5 May.

Some of the representatives, many of whom were members of the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) that adopted the country's constitution in January 2004, said they are unaware of the gathering's agenda, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 5 May. A Loya Jirga representative, Abdul Hafiz Mansur, said that he has been invited to Kabul but not given an agenda for the meeting.

The issue of U.S. bases "might be one of the issues for discussion, because the government has not invited representatives officially via the radio and television," Mansur speculated. The issue of a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been in the news for some time, and there is speculation that Karzai wants to hear from leading Afghans on the issue before his scheduled visit to the United States later in May, when he is expected to discuss the matter.

After the meeting, which took place in Kabul on 8 May, Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin claimed that the representatives backed Karzai's plans "strategic partnership" with the United States, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Ludin said that the representatives were "on the whole...very positive" with Karzai's proposed partnership with the United States. Karzai is expected to discuss the issue of strategic partnership with the U.S. during his visit to Washington later in May.

Ludin said that Kabul has not asked Washington to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan, as the "strategic partnership" proposal had been widely understood to suggest. Instead, he said, the "people of Afghanistan consider it necessary to have a long-term presence of foreign troops in the country until Afghan security forces are able to stand on their own feet," dpa reported on 8 May. Ludin did not elaborated on the expected duration of this presence.

In a commentary on 7 May, "Arman-e Melli" suggested that while foreign troops have "played a significant role" in maintaining peace and security in Afghanistan since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, it "would be better" for Karzai to "raise the question of whether is it in the national interest" of Afghanistan to allow the United States to establish permanent military bases in the country, with "elected representatives of the people in the parliament" scheduled to be elected in September. Members of the Loya Jirga that adopted the country's constitution in January 2004 are not the appropriate people to discuss such a vital issue, "Arman-e Melli" argues (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 January 2004).

"If there is no vote-rigging in the parliamentary elections," that body will "reflect the views of the people," and therefore should be the forum to adopt a decision on this issue, the commentary concludes.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, leader of the newly established opposition National Understanding Front, on 10 May accused Karzai's government for setting an authorized agenda for the 8 May meeting. Kabul daily "Erada" reported on 12 May (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 April 2005). Qanuni also said that the information provided by Ludin was a distortion of the conclusions that Karzai drew at the end of the meeting. (Amin Tarzi)

Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, currently the head the Independent National Commission for Peace in Afghanistan, has offered amnesty to Mullah Mohammad Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Sade-ye Jawan radio reported on 9 May.

The offer made by Mojaddedi -- who briefly served as Afghanistan first post-communist president in 1992 and led one of the anti-Soviet mujahedin groups in the 1980s to which Karzai belonged -- appears to contradict the stated policy of the Afghan president, who has offered amnesty to all former members of the Taliban regime with the exception of 100 to 150 who have committed crimes against the Afghan people, including Mullah Omar. Kabul has also not extended its reconciliation offer to Hekmatyar, who is considered a terrorist by the U.S. State Department and the United States has placed a $10 million reward for Mullah Omar's capture for his connection to Al-Qaeda.

Mojaddedi claims his decision is the legitimate result of a shift in the policy of the Afghan government. "The policies change day by day," he said, AFP reported on 9 May.

Referring to the recent escalation of violence by the neo-Taliban and their allies, Sade-ye Jawan expressed surprise at Mojaddedi's offer, adding that most Afghans "doubt how those responsible for terrorist attacks could participate in the country's reconstruction process" and ensure national unity.

Latifullah Hakimi on 9 May rejected Mojaddedi's offer of amnesty for Mullah Omar, adding that there is no solution to reconciliation between them and the Afghan government as long as U.S. military forces remain in Afghanistan, AIP reported on 9 May. "We do not beg anyone to allow us to live," and Mullah Omar does not need "amnesty from anybody," Hakimi added. According to Hakimi, if "the honorable" Mojaddedi truly has "influence" then he should ask the United States to leave Afghanistan and "rectify their big mistake."

Mojaddedi described the terms of his amnesty offer as respect for the Afghan Constitution, obedience to the government, and disarmament, AFP reported on 9 May.

A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Colonel James Yonts, said on 9 May that while Washington supports the amnesty offer to "noncriminal" former Taliban members, those "guilty of serious crimes must be responsible for their action," the BBC reported. "We believe the government of Afghanistan understands and supports" this position, Yonts added.

In a related story, RFE/RL reported on 10 May that Afghan government officials have privately stated that the amnesty offer extended to Mullah Omar and Hekmatyar was Mojaddedi's personal initiative, not the position of the Afghan government.

Speaking in Strasbourg on 10 May, Hamid Karzai confirmed that the amnesty offered to most former Taliban members also extends to Mullah Mohammad Omar and other top leaders of the ousted regime, RFE/RL reported.

"The offer [of amnesty] is there to all," Karzai said, adding that those "who are part of Al-Qaeda, those who are part of terrorism," will not accept the offer "because there is no place for them" in Afghanistan. Since 2003, Karzai's stated amnesty offer covered most former members of the Taliban, but not those "whose hands are covered with the blood of the nation" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 October 2003).

Karzai's new stance, at the time was in line with the announcement made on 9 May by Mojaddedi. However, a day later, on 10 May in Brussels, Karzai in an apparent change of stance said: "We have not spoken of an amnesty for Mullah Omar," the amnesty is for the Taliban who "want to come back and live in the country peacefully" RFE/RL reported. Karzai further dissociated himself from Mojaddedi and his own earlier remarks by adding that those "who are part of Al-Qaeda [and] are part of the continuation of terrorism are not going to be given amnesty."

On 11 May Mojaddedi also retracted his earlier statement that the Afghan government has offered amnesty to Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pazhwak News Agency reported.

In what Pazhwak called a "complete volte-face," Mojaddedi said his remarks about whether an amnesty offer extended to Mullah Omar and Hekmatyar were misconstrued by "media-people," adding that it was up to the Afghan people to pardon or punish the two men. "If they accept Afghanistan's new basic law and give up fighting, they may be forgiven. But personally speaking, I can't let them off because I don't have the right," Mojaddedi said. (Amin Tarzi)

9 May 1946 -- Mohammad Hashem resigns as prime minister, citing poor health as the reason. His brother and minister of defense, Shah Mahmud, asks to form a new government.

11 May 1965 -- A new electoral law, providing for universal, direct vote by secret ballot for all Afghan men and women over 20 goes into effect.

9 May 1994 -- Kabul air force bombards Mazar-e Sharif and Put-e Khumri in northern Afghanistan.

Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan," Third Edition, by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003).