These days, statements issued by NATO and U.S. officials tend to portray an optimistic picture of the situation in Afghanistan, suggesting that the insurgency remains on the back foot, that the transition to Afghan lead (the process by which security responsibility for Afghanistan is gradually transitioned to Afghan leadership) is continuing, and that in the meantime, NATO remains widely supported by the Afghan population.
Yet recent developments in Afghanistan seem to paint a far harsher picture. As I write these words, there are reports coming from several news agencies that two NATO soldiers and several Afghan protesters were shot and killed in the past couple of days. Two senior NATO officers have also been killed inside the (supposedly highly secure) Interior Ministry in Kabul. This wave of violence follows clashes between Afghan troops and protesters that broke out earlier in the week in the capital, and in three eastern provinces across Afghanistan, after the burning of several copies of the Koran at a U.S. base. The Koran burnings have also triggered massive protests elsewhere in the country, an illustration of the intensity of the anger at what Afghans perceive as foreign forces insulting their culture. Afghan security officials fear the riots could spread further, with pressure on people in other towns to show their outrage at the desecration.
This is hardly surprising, given that there are few more emotive issues in Afghanistan than allegations of the Islamic holy book being desecrated. Indeed, this incident seems to have provided an ideal opportunity for the Taliban and anyone else who wants to provoke anti-American or anti-foreigner sentiments. There is quiet fury within the Afghan government towards the Americans at what is perceived as their “brainless” behaviour. Even people still well-disposed towards foreigners cannot believe that the U.S. could have allowed this to happen, after more than a decade in Afghanistan and many previous mistakes.
The Americans (including President Obama) have apologised quickly and profusely, but the apologies apparently ring hollow to many Afghans. At the very least, this incident provides a painful illustration of the fact that the battle for perceptions—the famous ‘hearts and minds’ strategy—is not going as well as the NATO-led ISAF would like. With U.S.-Afghan negotiations over a strategic partnership still bogged down over issues such as night-time raids and control of prisoners, Mr. Karzai has been quick to seize the advantage, claiming that the Koran-burning disaster would not have happened if the Afghans had been in charge.
The problem, from the point of view of ISAF, is that this is only one of a series of developments that are deeply troubling. Reports coming out of Afghanistan suggest that the anger felt by many Afghans vis-à-vis the U.S. and NATO is increasingly strong. From recent episodes of troops urinating on Taliban bodies to the many instances of civilians being killed over the past 11 years, attitudes toward NATO (and particularly toward Americans) have progressively hardened. There is also widespread frustration at how little has changed despite the massive sums of money that have poured into Afghanistan. Indeed, from the point of view of Afghan civilians, there is little indication that the situation is getting better. A recent UN report reveals that the number of civilians killed and injured in the Afghan conflict has risen for the fifth year in a row. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, compared with 2,790 in 2010 and 2,412 in 2009.
The U.S. and its NATO allies rightly argue that the Taliban kill far more civilians with their suicide and other attacks. But the NATO-led ISAF has identified the protection of the population as a fundamental aim of its mission, and will be judged based on its ability to fulfil that aim. It would be unfair to forget the real efforts and sacrifices made within the framework of the international mission in Afghanistan, and it would also be unfair to deny that there have been some important ISAF success stories, both civilian and military. But overall, the picture does not look promising. Little surprise, then, that there is growing disenchantment among Afghans.
To make matters worse, the Koran incident comes right on the heels of the publication of a leaked U.S. military report which predicts that the Taliban will take over in Afghanistan when NATO forces withdraw from the country. The report—leaked a few weeks ago, and titled “The State of the Taliban 2012”—is based on material from 27,000 interrogations with more than 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters and civilians. One could argue, as NATO does, that the report represents no more than a collection of highly subjective perceptions, and should not be taken seriously. But even if this is true, the report is likely further to undermine the already weak political will and to erode military morale within ISAF, while at the same time giving renewed confidence to the Taliban and its allies. This, in turn, could further complicate efforts to find a lasting political solution for Afghanistan.
The recent incident involving the burning of the Koran may not represent NATO’s tipping point, hastening the allies’ departure from the country (as some analysts have argued). But it does reflect, and further contribute to, a deeply problematic series of developments in Afghanistan.