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2012-02-28

Report from Kabul: Deadly Protests over U.S. Koran Burning May Be Turning Point for U.S. Occupation

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The U.S.-led NATO occupation in Afghanistan is facing a storm of violence and outrage over the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. troops at the Bagram Air Base last week. Retaliatory attacks and public protests have swept Afghanistan, leaving more than 40 Afghans dead. On Sunday, six U.S. soldiers were injured in northern Afghanistan when a demonstrator threw a grenade at a U.S. base. Two senior U.S. Army officers were shot dead on Friday inside the Afghan Interior Ministry. In private, U.S. officials are expressing worry about the situation in Afghanistan. We go to Kabul to speak with John Wendle, a reporter for TIME and photographer for Polaris Images. "I think we’re going to continue to see attacks," Wendle says. "[This] makes it difficult for the United States to pull out and achieve the one goal that it’s kind of set for itself, which is training the Afghan security forces so they can stand on their own two feet and provide security in this country." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S.-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan is facing a storm of violence and outrage over the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. troops. Attacks and protests have swept Afghanistan following the disclosure U.S. soldiers burned copies of the Koran at the Bagram Air Base last week.

On Monday, a suicide car bomber killed nine people in an attack on a military airport in eastern Afghanistan. Nineteen Afghan civilians and law enforcement officers, as well as four NATO soldiers, were wounded. On Sunday, six U.S. soldiers were injured in northern Afghanistan when a demonstrator threw a grenade at a U.S. base. And in the latest growing wave of attacks on NATO troops by Afghan soldiers, two senior U.S. Army officers were shot dead on Friday inside a high-security command center at the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul. According to the Pentagon, around 70 NATO servicemembers have been killed by Afghan troops from May 2007 through last month.

Amid the unrest, the United States, Britain, Germany and France have all pulled out their advisers inside Afghan ministries, a major setback to the Obama administration’s stated goal of transitioning to a support role for the Afghan government.

On Monday, the Pentagon vowed to stay the course in Afghanistan. This is Pentagon spokesperson, George Little.

GEORGE LITTLE: Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey are fully committed to our strategy in Afghanistan. They believe we have achieved significant progress in reversing the Taliban’s momentum and in developing the Afghan security forces. And they believe that the fundamentals of our strategy remain sound.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, speaking to reporters from Afghanistan, U.S. military spokesperson Captain John Kirby insisted the unrest is "calming down."

CAPT. JOHN KIRBY: I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that things are tense here in Kabul. They certainly are. But I will tell you that it’s getting calmer here. On Saturday, we had 24 protests. A majority of them—not a majority, but a great number of them were violent. Yesterday, only nine protests, and they were not throughout the country. There was four in the north, four in the east, and only one out west. Today, there was only three protests, and only two of those three were about the Koran issue. One was about land disputes. And none of the three were violent, so—so things are calming down.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the past week, at least 40 Afghans have died in the protests.

Despite the public assertions, in private U.S. officials are expressing worry about the situation in Afghanistan. An unnamed administration official told the New York Times, quote, "Is there a concern now that many will question the need to stay? Yes—especially in an election year."

To discuss the latest in Afghanistan, we’re going to attempt to go to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, to speak with John Wendle, a reporter for Time and photographer for Polaris Images.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, John. Can you describe—start off by talking about why these Korans were burned by U.S. troops.

JOHN WENDLE: From what I’ve heard—first of all, thank you for having me on the show. But from what I’ve heard, the Korans were gathered and burned because they had been used to pass notes back and forth between prisoners at Bagram Air Base.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what exactly did the U.S. soldiers do?

JOHN WENDLE: From what I’ve read and from talking with people, they had gathered them and—I’m not quite sure, but probably under orders, they had been gathered and—from reports I’ve read, they were gathered, put in a truck and taken to a burn pit on the base. The base is huge, and burn pits are used to kind of take care of all the garbage on the base. So they were taken there and were going to be dumped into either a burn pit or an incinerator to dispose of the materials. And then the Afghans who were working there saw what was going into the burn pit or the incinerator and grabbed—grabbed some of the books out. From the reports I read, they were able to rescue about eight of them. And the next day, Reuters was able to interview some of the workers there who, you know, expressed outrage. And then, some of them were even burned trying to rescue the books. But that’s what I’ve been able to gather.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, how could this possibly have happened, the burning of the sacred book? In the past, over these last years, the outcry when something like this happens. And then explain what the U.S. reaction was, up to President Obama calling President Karzai to apologize.

JOHN WENDLE: Well, from—you know, the Bagram Air Base is a massive base. And, you know, the—many Afghans have called for these—the specific soldiers who were responsible for taking the books to the place where they were burned to face justice. My contention is, is that they were probably under orders, and probably they didn’t know what was in a truck, if it was full of materials. But I have no way of verifying that, and the military probably won’t speak to the press on such a—you know, such a divisive topic already. So, you know, to say that it was intentional or not, I don’t think anybody knows at this point.

I think that it was a grave error on the part of the U.S. military to make such a mistake. I’ve lived here for more than two-and-a-half years now, and I worked down in the Helmand province for about a year and a half for USAID development NGO—subcontractor. And in one of the districts, the U.S. special forces went into a house, they threw some flash grenades, and when those went off, they apparently burned a Koran. And then, when they left the compound, they left some women in flexicuffs. That day, as our helicopter came in and dropped off my team, there were, you know, shots flying over the base, and I think about 13 people were killed when protests kind of just swept over this very small district center. So, you know, that’s one Koran being burned, and it, you know, destroyed relations between the villagers and the Marine company that was down there. In fact, the district governor came in and spoke with the lieutenant colonel there. And this was a year and a half ago. And he said—you know, on the verge of tears, he told them—he told the lieutenant colonel that, you know, a year of work down the tubes. You know, so these incidents do have a massive impact on Afghan-U.S. relations. And it’s unconscionable, first of all, because it’s a holy book, but secondly, because, you know, we’ve been here for more than 10 years now, and we should know better.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the fallout, what this means, and the number of deaths, both Afghans who have died in this ensuing week, more than—what is the number? About 40? And the U.S. soldiers and personnel who have also died.

JOHN WENDLE: Well, you know, I think we’re in the early days still trying to figure out how this is going to shape things. Things are definitely shaken up. And as the military spokesman said, things are tense in Kabul. What I can say is that, you know, I think we’re going to continue to see attacks. From a report that I did for Time a couple days ago, we’ve seen that of about 54 NATO deaths—U.S. and our allies here—about 10 of those have been from green-on-blue attacks, which is Afghan security forces on U.S. security forces. And I think that will probably continue. It has definitely increased in the past few months.

What this means is that, you know, U.S. forces are on standby right now across Kabul and across the country. But more importantly, it’s going to shape how our relationship stands with the Afghans, the Afghan military and the Afghan government here, because as many news reports and, you know, government officials, Afghan and foreign, are saying, this is going to sorely strain tensions between the U.S. and the Afghans, and it’s going to make it very difficult for—not only for Americans to trust the people that they’re supposed to be training, but for Afghans to want to have—basically to have anything to do with Americans who are training them. And this is important because what it does is it makes it difficult for the United States to pull out and achieve the one goal that it’s kind of set for itself, which is training the Afghan security forces so that they can stand on their own two feet and, you know, provide security in this country. And if the U.S. decides or European allies decide at some point that they don’t want to do—or don’t want to continue these training missions, then that leaves an already poorly trained, poorly paid, and poorly equipped Afghan military to deal with an insurgency that’s, you know, maybe not becoming stronger, but definitely will not become weaker.

AMY GOODMAN: John Wendle is speaking to us overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan. He’s speaking to us from the Afghan capital. And John, I don’t know if you’re able to follow U.S. electoral politics. Right now, the Michigan and Arizona primary are taking place today, and President Obama has come under criticism from leading Republicans for issuing an apology for the Koran burning. Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum each said there’s no need for Obama to apologize. Take a listen.

NEWT GINGRICH: Churches are burned in Nigeria. Churches are burned in Egypt. Churches are burned in Malaysia. Do we have a word out of the President of the United States about the fact that maybe they demand an apology for religious intolerance? No. There seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way. And he is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States, period.

RICK SANTORUM: There was no act that needed an apology. It was an inadvertent act, and it should have been left at that. And I think the response needs to be apologized for by Karzai and the Afghan people of attacking and killing our men and women in uniform and overreacting to this inadvertent mistake. That is—that is the real crime here, not what our soldiers did.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, John, in Afghanistan, in Kabul?

JOHN WENDLE: You know, I’ve been reading this coming from, you know, the Republican presidential candidates. And to me, it just seems to be simple rhetoric meant to, you know, garner support among voters in the U.S. The story I wrote about the two killings at the Ministry of Interior, you know, the comments at the end of my story were shocking. You know, the fact that the dialogue in America has come to this is just outrageous to me. You know, I had some of my readers saying that Afghanistan should be bombed back to the Stone Age. You know, and I’ve heard that sentiment from American soldiers and from development workers. But, to me, it—you know, that kind of talk just does—it does nothing. It’s totally—it does nothing for relations.

And I think President Obama was correct in apologizing. I think, at this point, things are so broken here that, you know, we’re going to have to do what we can to try to calm things down to the degree that we can, and, you know, if that requires that the president of the United States apologizes for the burning of these Korans, then that’s what needs to be done, just so that, you know, things can be brought back to where they were just a week ago. You know, things have deteriorated very badly here, and, you know, they’re very fragile. And, you know, both sides need to kind of walk towards each other with olive branches in hand and try to make peace, and then, you know, get back to where we were and try to—you know, try to get back to training, you know, try to build trust. But, you know, things are extremely broken. In the story I wrote a couple days ago, there was a report that came out in May 2011 that, you know, outlines very specifically, through hundreds of interviews with both Afghan and American soldiers—you know, that it outlines the kind of problems and the kind of lack of trust and the misunderstanding between cultures and between soldiers. And, you know, I think Obama was right, right to do this, and we need to, you know—sorry, the U.S. government and military really need to kind of start building all these bridges that have been burned.

AMY GOODMAN: Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, also said not to apologize. But, John Wendle, you have been covering Afghanistan extensively, living there for several years. You have done a series of reports on the people who die in the Afghan winter. Talk about the conditions for people on the ground, as, in this country—well, before the Koran burnings, the word was the situation was getting better. I mean, the U.S. spending more than $2 billion a week in Afghanistan.

JOHN WENDLE: Well, I wish I was wearing a jacket right now. It’s a little cold. But we had a beautiful day today. But it has been extremely cold here in the city. You know, I think, at last count, there are about two dozen children who froze to death in refugee and internally displaced people camps throughout the—throughout the city here. And those numbers may increase, depending on the weather, but certainly the number of refugees and IDPs, as they’re known, will increase as the security situation in the countryside deteriorates and people feel that the only place that they can come are the big cities like Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, or Herat in the west. These are kind of bubbles of security that exist that people can kind of come to. And even if there are no job opportunities, at least there’s safety. And, you know, it’s kind of a measure of—and I think a very telling measure of—the lack of security in the country that people continue to come to Afghanistan. Now, we know that, you know, the urbanization across the world has been on the rise. There’s more people living in cities now than ever before, or than are living in rural areas, and so, you know, that’s part of it. But mostly, people are here for security, even if it means they’re living in mud huts with plastic roofs. And—

AMY GOODMAN: John, does the U.S. have responsibility under international law—

JOHN WENDLE: —you know, those numbers will continue to grow.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the U.S. have responsibility under international law to provide for refugees in these camps, considering it is occupying Afghanistan?

JOHN WENDLE: Under international law, I don’t know. I think that, you know, just as people, we definitely have, you know, a responsibility to help take care of these people. I know that the head—or former head of the UNHCR, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, had said that, you know, the United Nations and the Afghan government and the U.S. government and our allies do not have, you know, a solid plan for taking care of these refugees, especially as NATO routinely announces that, you know, there’s more refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran in the past few years because the security situation has improved. But, you know, once they get here, there’s nothing for them.

AMY GOODMAN: John Wendle, I know we might lose you in Afghanistan, but a quick question: Who is in charge right now in Afghanistan? Who’s got the power?

JOHN WENDLE: I don’t—I don’t think anyone has the power. It’s so, so fractured here. There’s 10,000 groups fighting for little bits of—little bits of power. Maybe it will come together. Who knows?

AMY GOODMAN: John Wendle, I want to thank you for being with us, a freelance reporter for Time magazine, photographer for Polaris Images. John is based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the latest WikiLeaks document dump. They have begun releasing five million emails of—obtained from the servers of Stratfor. We’ll explain what that is in a moment.

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