Sarah Chayes is a former NPR reporter who has been doing development work in
Kandahar since 2002. In this article for the New York Times, she analyses
the recent demonstrations in Afghanistan in response to the Newsweek story
about US soldiers flushing the Quran in the American occupied Cuban
territory of Guantánamo Bay.
Sara Chayes discusses the possible role of Pakistani and Iranian
intelligence operatives working in Afghanistan and how they are likely to
have instigated the riots that led to over a dozen deaths. What is
interesting is that even the demonstration in Toronto was initiated by two
mosques who identify closely with the Islamist ideology of the Iranian
regime in Teheran.
The writer prescribes solutions how America should work to win the hearts of
Muslims, but she misses the key point that may work: Stop the invasion and
occupation of Muslim countries and ask Israeli to get the hell out of
occupied Palestine! Insitigation of Iranian or Pakistani agents may
contribute to anti-Americanism, but America does enough on its own to win
the contempt of the developing world, whose markets and resources it wishes
Busharraf and the Ayatollahs will cut deals with Uncle Sam to stay in power,
but the people of these countries will never forget how US imperialism has
held them back in their quest for democracy and human rights. The
US toppled Mossadegh in 1953 in Iran and then followed up 1958 by
installing General Ayub Khan in neighbouring Pakistan. With such
dirt on their hands, they have the nerve to lecture the people of
Iran and Pakistan about democracy! Sheesh!
Read and reflect.
June 1. 2005
With a Little Help From Our Friends
By SARAH CHAYES in Kandahar
New York Times
ON Saturday, May 14, several hundred people gathered in the windswept main
street of Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan. Led
by local religious leaders, the crowd chanted slogans protesting the
supposed desecration of the Koran by interrogators at the detention center
run by the United States at Guantánamo Bay, as reported in the May 9 issue
Unlike protests widely covered in the news media, this one was peaceful and
broke up after about an hour. And there lies a paradox: Zabul is one of the
country's most conservative and anti-Western provinces. Only a few miles
away on the very road where the demonstration took place, vehicles carrying
Afghan employees of international organizations are regularly ambushed.
It is inconceivable that the residents of Zabul are less pained than other
Afghans by an alleged insult to what they believe is the living word of God.
And yet their protest came days late and featured none of the violence,
vandalism or loss of life suffered elsewhere. Why the disparity?
For me, after three years in southern Afghanistan, something felt not quite
right about the more virulent demonstrations across the country. The instant
tip-off was that they were initially led by university students. Afghans and
Westerners living in Kandahar have often wondered at the number of Pakistani
students in what passes for a university here. The place is pathetically
dilapidated, the library a locked storeroom, the medical faculty bereft of
the most elementary skeleton or model of the human body. Why would anyone
come here to study from Pakistan? Our unshakable conclusion has been that
the adroit Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is
planting operatives in the student body. These students can also provoke
agitation at Pakistani officials' behest, while affording the government in
Islamabad plausible deniability.
In both Kandahar and Kabul, alert Afghan government officials were able to
calm demonstrations by holding discussions with student leaders, an
indication of the degree to which protesters' actions were manipulated and
not the result of spontaneous outrage.
In other words, it's a mistake to focus on the Newsweek article as the cause
of the recent demonstrations in Afghanistan. Instead, the reason was
President Hamid Karzai's May 8 announcement that Afghanistan would enter a
long-term strategic partnership with the United States.
Such an alliance discomfits Afghanistan's neighbors. Pakistan, for one, is
used to treating Afghanistan as an all but subject territory. The events of
Sept. 11 and the sudden arrival of the United States changed all that, to
the muted chagrin of Islamabad. Although Pakistani officials have mastered
their role as allies in the "war on terrorism" and play it convincingly,
they would like nothing better than to see the United States pull out of
Afghanistan. What better, then, than to project Afghanistan as a volatile
place, hostile to Americans?
The Iranian government, too, is likely to observe the tightening ring of
American military installations around its country's borders with concern.
Several Afghan investigators looking into the instigation of the recent
riots, especially in Kabul, told me that if anything, the involvement of
Iranian agents was even more pronounced than that of Pakistanis. Finally,
Afghan opponents of Mr. Karzai's government - of various stripes - were also
seen to play a role in inciting the demonstrations.
Yet for all the artificial nature of the conflagration, fires cannot be
started without tinder and fuel - in this case, popular exasperation about
the unkept promises of the post-Taliban order and shock about some aspects
of American conduct.
What most Afghans have complained to me most consistently about is the
inexplicable staying power of predatory, corrupt and abusive officials, on
both the provincial and national level. Having waited patiently through the
emergency loya jirga, or national assembly, in June 2002, the approval of a
new constitution at a second loya jirga in December 2003, and the
presidential election last fall, Afghans are at a loss as to why the Karzai
administration and its American backers repeatedly put their confidence in
unqualified and often criminal officials. By blindly allying themselves with
some of the most destructive elements of Afghan society (over-armed,
under-disciplined thugs), American forces paint themselves in the ugly
colors of their Afghan proxies. The extortions, murders, unwarranted
searches and unfair monopolies on lucrative work contracts are seen as
integral components of American policy.
Somehow, in the three-and-a-half years that the United States has been here,
it has not figured out how to avoid this trap. This incapacity for
institutional learning is perhaps the most surprising failing on the part of
the Army that I have witnessed. Each new contingent starts from scratch;
knowledge of local tribal dynamics, geography, customs and personalities
painstakingly acquired by the previous unit is never properly transferred.
And so the same mistakes are made again and again.
Highhanded American behavior has also contributed fuel for the fire. The 200
to 300 Afghan men who work on the American base in Kandahar, to give a
mundane example, wait several hours in the sun to be admitted through
increasingly stringent searches. Why not stagger the arrivals of different
teams of workers, to ease their discomfort and reduce the target that such a
large group of people represents? The contractor Kellogg Brown & Root
initially wanted its Afghan laborers on the base to work 12-hour shifts,
with a half-hour for lunch and one half-day free a week. Such sweatshop
labor practices are unworthy of the values the United States claims to
represent. (Afghan workers did succeed in getting the workday reduced to
But inconveniences are one thing, atrocities quite another. On their own,
the fatal beatings of probably innocent detainees and the use of religiously
based sexual humiliation at the prison on the American base in Bagram would
be sufficient pretext for troublemakers to provoke a riot, never mind the
Newsweek report about desecration of the Koran.
Such behavior is not only a disgrace but also a serious national security
risk. Our safety and survival depend increasingly on our ability to forge
profound, cooperative relationships based in mutual comprehension with
Muslim peoples. But when the United States can be plausibly depicted, by
Pakistani operatives or Muslim extremists, as a country with little regard
for the human dignity of Muslims, such friendships founder. The kind of
behavior that has been documented in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib or Bagram
presents a gift of inflammable tinder to the very extremists we claim to be