More worries about Afghanistan

Any doubts about Afghanistan’s fragility have been put to rest in recent weeks. Reports that copies of the Quran were inadvertently burned at a coalition military base unleashed a spasm of violence, ranging from mass demonstrations to murder. It has torn apart already strained relations between Afghans and the coalition forces which are trying to restore peace and stability to that country. The key question now — the answer to which is still unknowable — is whether a partnership can be reforged.

The relationship between the coalition forces and the Afghan government and people has never been strong. While many Afghans welcomed the removal of the Taliban government in the wake of U.S.-led invasion, the Kabul government’s inability to restore order throughout the country, and the corruption and incompetence that have characterized its performance have alienated ever-increasing segments of the population. Periodic incidents have put the match to the tinder of public dissatisfaction.

Last month, it was reported that copies of the Quran had been burned at a military detention center in Afghanistan. Reportedly, officials at the facility worried that the religious texts were among papers removed from the detention center’s library after they had been used by detainees to communicate messages. Afghan workers rescued the books from the incinerator and smuggled them off base. News that the books were being burned — it is not clear if workers knew the Quran was among the documents being incinerated — triggered a series of protests across the country.

The protests have become steadily more violent. As many as three dozen people have died as a result of the wave of violence. More chilling are targeted assassinations. Six U.S. military personnel were killed in an eight day period by the very people they were training and with whom they were working. In one incident, a man hired to teach Afghan soldiers to read shot and killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded a third in the command and control center of the Interior Ministry, an ominous indication of disaffection felt even in the innermost sanctum of power in Afghanistan.

In response, U.S. President Barack Obama has apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai (an adroit and diplomatic move that nonetheless triggered a backlash in the United States) and the U.S. military has launched an investigation into what happened and why. U.S. and NATO officials have said that they remain committed to their mission in Afghanistan, even as the multinational coalition withdrew all forces from government ministries. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker says he sees “no permanent rupture” from the episode.

Plainly, however, there is a deep reservoir of mistrust. This is the second time in a year that U.S. actions have triggered violence in Afghanistan. The burning of a Quran by a Florida pastor a year ago led to four days of riots that resulted in 24 deaths, including two U.S. soldiers shot by an Afghan policeman.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Afghan soldiers, police or security personnel have killed about 70 coalition soldiers or other personnel in Afghanistan in 46 attacks since 2007. More worrying, is that it is estimated that one out of every five military fatalities is the result of such “insider” shootings.

The Taliban is invariably quick to claim credit for every incident, and some of the shooters may actually be sympathizers. But the roots of such action lie in the resentment and frustration felt by most Afghans. Coalition forces are seen as insensitive to local culture, and quick to view many ordinary Afghans as potential threats. Pictures of abuse of Afghans in prison or U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters add fuel to the fire.

There is also a long-standing tension between modernizers in Afghanistan and conservatives, many of whom are not Taliban. They are deeply disconcerted by the presence of thousands of foreigners and worry that their traditional ways of life are being destroyed. In short, there is a struggle for the future of Afghanistan.

No one better personifies that division than President Karzai. He knows he needs the U.S. military for support and Washington as a patron. At the same time, he cannot afford to turn his back on the swelling public sentiment that resents the foreign presence. He has appealed for calm as the U.S. investigates the Quran burning incident.

The key question for Mr. Karzai, and his government, is how the wave of violence will impact the planned transition and withdrawal of coalition forces. U.S. military commanders have said that they remain committed to fighting the war in Afghanistan but diplomatic personnel concede that the shootings will have a “huge” impact on planning for the eventual drawdown, the results of which should be known by May.

Both sides must be careful. The Taliban and its supporters succeed when they deepen the divide between Mr. Karzai and the coalition, increasing suspicion and prompting precipitous action. This is no time for emotional and reflexive action. The mission in Afghanistan remains the same. As do the challenges.