Afghan anger over offensive American leaflets spilled over into protests against the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. CreditGhulamullah Habibi/European Pressphoto Agency
KABUL, Afghanistan — The sermon at the mosque in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter on Friday sounded a familiar but disquieting theme.
“You have disrespected the feelings of 1.8 billion Muslims and all that they hold sacred,” the imam, Muhammed Ayaz Niazi, bellowed, addressing the American forces in Afghanistan. “Those who have committed this grave crime are trying to test our people, to see if they are dead or alive. We promise to defend our values, defend our religion, defend our soil.”
Most of the Western missions are a stone’s throw from the mosque and, even if they didn’t understand the local language, their staffs could hear the anger.
Once again, the American military had stumbled into insulting the religion of the people they are here to help defend, inadvertently stoking anti-American anger and violence.
This time, the rage was over a leaflet dropped on homes in Parwan Province, north of Kabul, on Tuesday night. The postcard- sized leaflets showed a lion, representing the American-led coalition forces, chasing a dog, an animal seen as dirty in Islamic tradition, wrapped in the Taliban flag.
The problem? The writing on the flag, in large letters, is the text most sacred to Muslims: the shahada, the foundational declaration of faith in God.
American military officials quickly apologized, and so far the reaction has been less severe than that following the NATO burning of Qurans in 2012, or the video of American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters the same year.
But a suicide attack on Bagram Air Base on Wednesday, which wounded four people, was carried out in revenge for the leaflets, the Taliban claimed.
American military officials said they were watching the situation “very closely.” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top American and NATO commander, was in Belgium when the leafleting took place, and his staff described him as “absolutely furious.”
Maj. Gen. James Linder, commander of the joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, issued an apology on Wednesday, saying there was “no excuse for this mistake” and promising to “make appropriate changes so this never happens again.”
The episode comes at a particularly awkward time for the United States and the Afghan government, just after the Trump administration began stepping up the American military presence here and the administration of President Ashraf Ghani has taken heat for failing to criticize the Americans for an airstrike that killed 11 civilians in southeastern Afghanistan last week.
Mr. Ghani, who has lived most of his life in the West and has struggled to find a firm connection with large segments of his own people, has not spoken publicly about the leaflets either.
“The forces in Bagram already apologized for the leaflets,” his spokesman, Shahhussain Murtazawi said. “President Ghani is closely following these issues.”
Mr. Ghani has been vocally supportive of Mr. Trump’s new Afghan strategy, announced last month, that increases the number of troops by an unspecified amount and doubles American air power. Mr. Trump said the new strategy was not a blank check, but he has provided no timeline for withdrawal or defined what constitutes success.
The anger comes during a week of tense public rallies and gatherings, which could spiral out of the control of a government that has struggled to contain public demonstrations.
Several large protests against the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar also ended up addressing the leaflet issue.
“Those who are waging jihad for uprooting the Jews and Christians, and the infidel Americans who are disrespecting our religion, their feet are worthy of being kissed,” Abdul Satar Khawasi, a member of the Afghan Parliament, said at a pro-Rohingya protest near the presidential palace.
In Parwan, where the leaflets were dropped, the governor, Muhammad Asim, condemned the action, promising to punish those who committed “this unforgivable mistake.” But he and other local officials also engaged in damage control, meeting with elders and urging religious scholars to calm the anger that the Taliban was already seeking to exploit.
Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the provincial police chief, tried to get his constituents to put the insult into perspective. “I told them that it was a mistake, and then I asked them what they think about terrorist suicide attacks in mosques?” he said. “Attacks on funeral ceremonies, attacks on schools? I told them the leaflets issue was a mistake and it was a bad thing, but if they hold protests on Friday, it would not be beneficial.”
Sadullah Abu Aman, head of the council of religious scholars in Badakhshan Province, had a similar message. “Americans are creating problems for themselves with publishing such leaflets, they should not do this,” he said. But, he added, “we will not follow and discuss this issue of leaflets too much, because the security situation in Badakhshan is already not good, and if we discuss it too much it will make the security situation worse.”
By Friday night, with Friday Prayers long over, Afghan and American officials were hoping the worst had blown over.
But official apologies have rarely quelled anger on matters of religion in conservative Afghanistan. In 2011, protesters angry over news of a Florida church burning the Quran stormed a United Nations office in the north, killing 12 people.
After the Quran burning at Bagram came to light, violent protests erupted around the country. Thousands besieged the base, shouting death to America and throwing gasoline bombs, and at least 29 Afghans and 6 American soldiers were killed.
In the aftermath, the commanding general instituted mandatory training for all military personnel in Afghanistan on the proper way to dispose of religious material. “We are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again,” the NATO commander, General, John R. Allen, said at the time.
It hasn’t. But there was no training about the use of Quranic text on propaganda leaflets.
Source: The NY Times