Afghanistan has veered sharply and unexpectedly toward a profound new level of instability, as protests against cartoons originally published in a Danish newspaper and deemed insulting to Mohammed have gripped major towns and cities across the country.
So far four protesters have been killed by local Afghan security forces. Three of the dead fell at a protest outside the huge US military base at Bagram, where at least a dozen others were wounded. Some Western embassies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have begun evacuating staff. Foreigners are largely staying off the streets, as protests are expected to continue until midday prayers on Friday.
In Kabul on Tuesday, protesters gathered outside foreign embassies, military bases and a United Nations compound. Turned away at each location by guards firing weapons in the air, a crowd of 1,000 or more headed to the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where they attacked UN vehicles and houses belonging–or believed to belong–to NGOs. There were also major protests in the western city of Herat; at the office of the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the largest aid agencies operating in Afghanistan; and in Pul-i-Khumri, due north of Kabul, where crowds attacked a Dutch base. The Dutch Parliament recently voted to send an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan’s violent southern central province of Uruzgan.
In the normally peaceful northern town of Maymana, a crowd breached a base manned by Norwegian troops, threw stones, lobbed grenades, torched an armored vehicle and wounded several soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. The troops shot tear gas and rubber bullets, and called in low-flying aircraft to ward off the protesters. British troops sent in a rapid-reaction force from Mazar-i-Sharif. Eventually, the crowd dispersed, with one person reported dead and several wounded (some of the wounded are said to have later died).
Given the breadth and scope of the violence and its overtly anti-Western themes, it is clear that after four years of occupation and $8 billion of poorly managed development aid, a significant number of Afghans have grown tired of the “international community” and its military occupation.
Complementing the wave of violent protests was a massive suicide bombing at the central police station in Kandahar on Tuesday morning. That blast, the twentieth suicide bombing in the past four months, left at least thirteen dead and thirteen wounded. The victims, both police and civilians, had been standing in a queue at the police station.
The three days preceding the wave of protests saw major battles between local police and Taliban fighters in the southern province of Helmand, which is both a Taliban stronghold and a major poppy cultivation center. Those battles killed more than twenty people and ended with coalition air support and a US mop-up operation.
A development worker in Helmand said that just before the violence flared, a local eradication plan was announced suggesting a connection between poppy farmers, smugglers and Taliban guerrillas–but the nature of that connection is hotly debated. Sources close to the Taliban as well as the Ministry of the Interior have said that about a month ago a column of some 200 Taliban fighters entered Afghanistan from Pakistan via the southern province of Zabul, and from there spread out–some heading to Helmand, others to Uruzgan.
The protests over cartoons deemed offensive to Islam have straightforward, purely religious origins–people are infuriated by the insult. But the unrest in Afghanistan is also fueled by specifically local political and economic grievances.
One Kabul resident dismissed the suggestion of broader political connections to Palestine and Iraq, saying: “The people are just angry about the cartoon.” But as one former Taliban leader who is now reconciled with the government said, “The NGOs don’t do enough. They just drive around.”
A week before the protests, local Taliban fighters in Zabul said something similar: “We attack those NGOs that are here to profit from our country, but not those here to help.” Even a moderate shopkeeper in Ghazni expressed growing frustration with the international presence. “They spend their money on cars and expensive houses, and most of it ends up outside of the country.” Not helping matters are coalition-led house searches, random detentions and last year’s revelations of torture at Bagram air base.
The larger backdrop to the recent mayhem has been a steady deterioration of security for civilians and military personnel over the past three years. In the past few months, Taliban insurgents have begun to claim credit for suicide bombings as well as for deliberately targeting civilians with improvised explosive devices. The UN and others report that Taliban attacks are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated. This seems to be borne out by higher casualties among American troops and ISAF forces. Statistically, a US tour in Afghanistan is just as deadly as one in Iraq. One recent attack in Kandahar managed to kill a Canadian diplomat.
Even high-level political and intelligence officers from European countries are now writing and circulating highly pessimistic reports. Despite pledges from international donors of some $10 billion in new funding for Afghanistan over the next five years at the London Conference in late January, the future for this underdeveloped, land-locked, war-ravaged and very angry country does not look good.