Afghanistan: When gentle Mazar-e-Sharif erupted in violence
UN workers warn killings in surge of anger prompted by Qur'an burning could end Afghan mission
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 2 April 2011 19.45 BST
Syed Jamal had a front-row seat for Friday's sacking of the UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif. The small building containing offices for the provincial mission are separated from the bread shop owned by the 17-year-old's family by just an open drain and a few dozen yards of rutted, unpaved road.
The day after the attack, a group of 20 bored policemen were lounging around in the front of the gutted building, biding their time by reading UN leaflets that had become strewn in front of the building, and standing guard in front of a pair of burned-out trucks.
But the dramatic events of Friday – events that shocked the world, imperilled the entire UN mission and raised serious doubts about how Afghanistan will handle the handover of power from its foreign backers – were of marginal interest to Jamal and the boys messing around on the corner.
And there were mixed feelings about the rights and wrongs of an incident that cost the lives of seven UN staff – four Gurkha security guards and three European UN diplomats – making it the worst crisis to hit the international organisation in Afghanistan.
Yes, they thought what happened on their doorstep was wrong – particularly the beheading of two UN staff, who they accepted were only in Mazar to "serve Afghanistan". But, they said, "the foreigners" needed to understand the level of anger at the desecration of the Qur'an by a Christian extremist on the other side of the world.
"Why do they not respect us?" asked Jamal. "We do not burn their Christian books, so they need to understand that the Qur'an is our most holy book."
It was a question repeated in other parts of Afghanistan as anger over the Qur'an-burning fuelled a second day of violence, sparking riots in the southern city of Kandahar in which nine protesters died and more than 80 were injured. Demonstrations in cities such as Kabul and Herat against Florida pastor Terry Jones's stunt were reported to have stayed peaceful, in stark comparison to Friday's drama in Mazar.
It was in the city's exquisite Blue Mosque, where Jones's Qur'an-burning was the subject of a Friday-prayers sermon, that the afternoon's bloody sequence of events began to unfold. Upon leaving the mosque, worshippers found another set of religious leaders in a Toyota Corolla kitted out with loudspeakers urging people to join them at the burning of Jones in effigy.
But then the crowd turned and started walking the one-mile journey towards the UN compound.
Atiullah Ansari, head of the Blue Mosque, said there had been no plan to do that and claimed that radical madrasa students from outside the city were to blame. These "agents of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami [a Taliban-allied insurgent group]" were solely responsible for the violence, he argued.
That view was also being pushed by provincial government officials keen to blame a small minority for inciting the violence, although few analysts accepted it. Unusually, one of the Taliban's spokesmen, Zabiullah Mujahid – a man not usually given to missing an opportunity to claim credit for mayhem – sent a text message to the Observer denying involvement.
If the glimmer of popular sympathy for violence in Mazar is disturbing, so too is the fact that such a terrible attack on western civilians should have happened there at all. Mazar is a highly secure city of ordered streets, where cars are regulated by traffic lights which, almost uniquely in Afghanistan, not only work but are obeyed.
When Liam Fox, the defence secretary, toured Afghanistan, he made a point of adding Mazar to the usual British itinerary of Kabul and Helmand. "It was a totally unthreatening environment," he said at the time. "It's a city the size of Bristol and it felt just like any safe city in Central Asia."
Indeed, there are few signs of the concrete bastions and blast walls that encrust important buildings in other Afghan cities. The newly opened US consulate, which has taken over an old hotel, does not even have razor wire along its not particularly high walls.
And the UN compound looks, with hindsight, absurdly under-protected. Little stood in the way of Friday's crowds except a metal car barrier and a couple of Gurkhas who, on being overwhelmed by the crowds, were beaten with the butts of their own assault rifles, eyewitnesses said.
The image of a furious mob cutting down the white men who had come into their midst conjured up parallels with the west's previous forays into the country, not least the first Anglo-Afghan War, which was preceded by a crowd overwhelming a British position and killing the famous diplomat Alexander Burnes in 1841.
That incident had in part been due to the dissolute behaviour of foreigners that had been gradually enraging the locals in the conservative Islamic country for some time.
Many believe the same is happening again. "There is a lot of anger after years in which western military operations have caused an accumulation of civilian casualty cases," wrote Thomas Ruttig, director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Afghans are tired of the repeated initial denials, then admission that something may have gone wrong and then apologies. Paying compensation might be nice gestures but cannot bring anyone back to life."
Politicians, including the president Hamid Karzai, tap into public anger in order – claim his many critics – to mask his own shortcomings. The day before the Mazar riots, the Afghan president fuelled the controversy by condemning the Qur'an burning and calling for Jones to be arrested.
In days gone by, the UN liked to think it stood above the many conflicts in Afghanistan, working as a vital independent arbiter. Today, however, the international organisation is regarded as too weak to be truly useful by the Americans and partisan by both the government and much of the insurgent movement.
The Karzai government's displeasure with the UN was illustrated earlier this month when Ban Ki-moon, the organisation's secretary general, received an extraordinary letter from the Afghan foreign minister demanding radical changes to its mandate in the country. The government demanded that the UN close down many of its offices, limiting its presence to just "six recognised zones throughout the country."
The tragedy is that the UN had just started preparing for potentially greater risks to its staff in future, as the country starts a multi-year process of "transition" from Nato to Afghan security control.
By the end of 2014, the entire country is meant to be in the hands of the Afghan National Army and its police force, with certain cities and provinces due to be transfer this year – including Mazar. But in a sign that they are not fully confident in Afghanistan's security services, UN officers have been looking at ways to improve the safety of their staff in areas that are soon to be handed over.
Even in Bamiyan, by far the most benign and anti-Taliban area in the country, which is also slated to be transferred away from Nato control this year, the UN has drawn up plans to move from the compound that has served it well for years to the other side of the town and a more secure area.
It is the sort of development that is likely to further erode already rock-bottom morale among many UN staff who, over the last two years, have seen their freedom to operate drastically curtailed in the name of security. Today they live and work in increasingly fortress-like facilities and only see everyday Afghanistan through the thick glass of their armoured vehicles.
Now things could get even worse, with many UN staffers predicting that – as with the aftermath of an attack on a Kabul guesthouse in 2009 that left five dead – many people might be sent out of the country altogether to work remotely for Afghanistan from Dubai.
Writing on her personal blog in response to Friday's attack, one aid worker called Una Moore said that the episode did not represent the beginning of the end of the international presence in Afghanistan; "this is the end," she wrote.
"Unless we, the internationals, want our guards to fire on unarmed protesters from now on, the day has come for us to leave Afghanistan."
Koran protests continue in Afghanistan
Sunday, 3 April 2011
Demonstrators battled police in southern Afghanistan's main city on Sunday and took to the streets in the turbulent east for the first time as Western pleas failed to halt a third day of rage over a Florida pastor's burning of the Koran.
An officer was shot dead in a second day of clashes in the city of Kandahar, said provincial health director Qayum Pokhla. Two officers and 18 civilians were wounded, he said.
In Jalalabad, the largest city in the east, hundreds of people blocked the main highway for three hours, shouting for US troops to leave, burning an effigy of President Barack Obama and stomping on a drawing of a US flag. More than 1,000 people set tires ablaze to block another highway in eastern Parwan province for about an hour, said provincial police chief Sher Ahmad Maladani.
The violence was set off by anger over the March 20 burning of the Koran by a Florida church — the same church whose pastor had threatened to do so last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, triggering worldwide outrage.
The protests, which began Friday, also appear to be fueled more broadly by the resentment that has been building for years in Afghanistan over the operations of Western military forces, blamed for killing and mistreating civilians, and international contractors, seen by many as enriching themselves and fueling corruption at the expense of ordinary Afghans.
Coverage of the trial of a group of US soldiers charged with killing Afghan civilians and the publication of photos of some posing with dead bodies added to the anger.
Thousands of demonstrators in the previously peaceful northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif poured into the streets after Friday's Muslim prayer services and overran a UN compound, killing three UN staff members and four Nepalese guards.
On Saturday, hundreds of Afghans holding copies of the Koran over their heads marched in Kandahar before attacking cars and businesses. Security forces opened fire and nine protesters were killed but the governor of Kandahar said officers had only fired into the air. He said 81 were wounded and 17 people, including seven armed men, had been arrested.
Military commander Gen. David Petraeus and the top Nato civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said they "hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the holy Koran, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people."
The Taliban said in a statement emailed to media outlets that the US and other Western countries had wrongly excused the burning of the Koran as freedom of speech and that Afghans "cannot accept this un-Islamic act."
"Afghan forces under the order of the foreign forces attacked unarmed people during the protests, killing them and arresting some, saying there were armed people among these protesters, which was not true," the Taliban said.
The governor of Kandahar said he and the main leaders of the protests in the southern city had reached an agreement that would end the demonstrations in exchange for the release of those who were arrested. He said they released 25 people but did not provide details.
Afghans continue to denounce Quran burning
Quran burning protests continue as UN vows to maintain presence in the country, despite deadly attack on its office.
Last Modified: 03 Apr 2011 04:17
Afghanistan: United Nations mission rocked by mob killings
Death toll unconfirmed after protesters storm Mazar-e-Sharif compound in response to Qur'an burning by US pastor
Jon Boone in Kabul
The Guardian, Saturday 2 April 2011
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has been plunged into jeopardy after protesters enraged by the burning of a Qur'an by Christian extremists in the US stormed a UN compound in the north of the country and killed at least seven foreign staff members.
Amid uncertainty about the overall death toll, the UN said its staff were killed when the usually peaceful city of Mazar-e-Sharif exploded into violent protest.
Four of the seven foreigners killed were former Gurkhas working as private security guards. Norway's defence ministry named another victim as Lieutenant Colonel Siki Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot working for the UN, while the sixth victim was named as Joakin Dungel, 33, a Swede working in the UN office. The seventh foreigner killed was believed to be Romanian. Two of the UN workers were reported to have been beheaded
Last night, Afghan officials arrested more than 20 people in connection with the assault including the alleged ringleader.
Under UN rules, officials will have to consider pulling out staff members or shutting down operations altogether.
After an attack on a UN guesthouse in Kabul in late 2009 in which five UN staff were killed, hundreds of their colleagues were temporarily relocated to Dubai while the organisation spent millions closing guesthouses and outfitting a big base on the outskirts of Kabul.
Last night, Staffan de Mistura, the UN's leading envoy in Afghanistan, flew directly to Mazar-e-Sharif to take stock of the disaster. One senior staff member said there had been "absolutely no discussion" about repositioning staff, but many UN workers feared the incident would mark another milestone in the gradual retreat of UN diplomats and aid workers into a world where they only see the inside of fortified compounds and armoured vehicles.
Last week Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said Mazar-e-Sharif would be one of the first areas to be transferred to Afghan control this year. But the police were no match for the sudden outburst of violence yesterday, which was triggered by the actions of a fringe Christian group on the other side of the world.
The Rev Terry Jones's small church, the Dove World Outreach Centre in Florida, had threatened to destroy a copy of the Qur'an on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks last year, but the pastor backed down after an appeal by General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Aghnaistan. But the church went through with the burning last month with Jones in attendance.
The Qur'an burning was the subject of anger at Friday prayers around Afghanistan yesterday. In Mazar-e-Sharif thousands of people poured out of the city's famous Blue Mosque after a sermon by the presiding mullah, with one police official estimating that there were 4,000 people on the streets of the city.
The head of the Blue Mosque, Atiqullah Ansari, said only a minority were responsible for the violence, claiming they were the followers of a mullah who served under the Taliban regime. "They went to the UN compound and killed the foreigners, this is what they wanted," he said.
Last night Jones told the BBC he could not be held responsible for the attack on the UN. Instead he blamed Islam. "We must take a serious, serious look at Islam," he said. "It's a violent religion that promotes acts of violence, I believe we need to bring this before the UN."
Barack Obama condemned the attack, saying: "We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence and resolve differences through dialogue."
The attack was also condemned by William Hague, the foreign secretary, who said: "The families and friends of those killed today have my deepest sympathies. The work of the [UN] in Afghanistan is of utmost importance. It is vital that they can carry out their work in a safe and secure environment.
"I call upon the Afghan government to investigate this incident and bring the perpetrators to justice."
However, in Mazar-e-Sharif the surviving UN staff were said to be shell-shocked and bewildered at the failings of security that allowed their compound to be overwhelmed.
Across the country the UN issued a "White City" order, putting all staff members into a state of lockdown, preventing them from leaving their compounds.
Afghanistan: United Nations mission rocked by mob killings
Death toll unconfirmed after protesters storm Mazar-e-Sharif compound in response to Qur'an burning by US pastor
More deaths as Afghans protest Quran burning
Eight people killed in Kandahar as thousands protest against a US pastor's burning of the Quran last month.
Last Modified: 02 Apr 2011 12:08
Kill teams in Afghanistan: the truth
These disgusting photos of murdered Afghans reveal the aggression and racism underpinning the occupation of my country
The Guardian, Wednesday 30 March 2011
The disgusting and heartbreaking photos published last week in the German media, and more recently in Rolling Stone magazine, are finally bringing the grisly truth about the war in Afghanistan to a wider public. All the PR about this war being about democracy and human rights melts into thin air with the pictures of US soldiers posing with the dead and mutilated bodies of innocent Afghan civilians.
I must report that Afghans do not believe this to be a story of a few rogue soldiers. We believe that the brutal actions of these "kill teams" reveal the aggression and racism which is part and parcel of the entire military occupation. While these photos are new, the murder of innocents is not. Such crimes have sparked many protests in Afghanistan and have sharply raised anti-American sentiment among ordinary Afghans.
I am not surprised that the mainstream media in the US has been reluctant to publish these images of the soldiers who made sport out of murdering Afghans. General Petraeus, now in charge of the American-led occupation, is said to place great importance on the "information war" for public opinion – and there is a concerted effort to keep the reality of Afghanistan out of sight in the US.
Last week my initial application for a US entry visa was turned down, and so my book tour was delayed while supporters demanded my right to enter the country. The American government was pressed to relent and allow my visit to go ahead. Ultimately it too will be unable to block out the truth about the war in Afghanistan.
The "kill team" images will come as a shock to many outside Afghanistan but not to us. We have seen countless incidents of American and Nato forces killing innocent people like birds. For instance, they recently killed nine children in Kunar Province who were collecting firewood. In February this year they killed 65 innocent villagers, most of them women and children. In this case, as in many others, Nato claimed that they had only killed insurgents, even though local authorities acknowledged that the victims were civilians. To prevent the facts coming out they even arrested two journalists from al-Jazeera who attempted to visit and report from the site of the massacre.
Successive US officials have said that they will safeguard civilians and that they will be more careful, but in fact they are only more careful in their efforts to cover up their crimes and suppress reporting of them. The US and Nato, along with the office of the UN's assistance mission in Afghanistan, usually give statistics about civilian deaths that underestimate the numbers. The reality is that President Obama's so-called surge has only led to a surge of violence from all sides, and civilian deaths have increased.
The occupying armies have tried to buy off the families of their victims, offering $2,000 for each one killed. Afghans' lives are cheap for the US and Nato, but no matter how much they offer, we don't want their blood money.
Once you know all this, and once you have seen the "kill team" photos, you will understand more clearly why Afghans have turned against this occupation. The Karzai regime is more hated than ever: it only rules through intimidation, corruption, and with the help of the occupying armies. Afghans deserve much better than this.
However, this does not mean more Afghans are supporting the reactionary so-called resistance of the Taliban. Instead we are seeing the growth, under very difficult conditions, of another resistance led by students, women and the ordinary poor people of Afghanistan. They are taking to the streets to protest against the massacre of civilians and to demand an end to the war. Demonstrations like this were recently held in Kabul, Marzar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Farah.
This resistance is inspired by the movements in other countries like Egypt and Tunisia – we want to see "people power" in Afghanistan as well. And we need the support and solidarity of people in the Nato countries.
Many new voices are speaking up against this expensive and hypocritical war in Afghanistan, including soldiers from the Nato armies. When I last visited the UK I had the honour of meeting Joe Glenton, a conscientious objector who spent months in jail for his resistance to the war in Afghanistan. Of his time in prison, Glenton said: "In the current climate I consider it a badge of honour to have served a prison sentence."
So while the world looks in horror at the "kill team" photographs, Joe Glenton's courage and humanity is an important reminder that the war in Afghanistan need not last forever.
Afghan government plans crackdown on revealing wedding dresses
Committees would ensure brides are modestly dressed and male and female guests do not mix under a new law
Jon Boone in Kabul
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 April 2011 16.19 BST
There is an awful lot of flesh on display at Qasre Aros in central Kabul. Arms and shoulders are free to the elements, while necklines plunge daringly low on garish ballgowns made of every shade of synthetic material imaginable and encrusted with fake jewels.
Though the skin may be the orangey plastic of the dozens of mannequins lining the walls, the dresses are worn every night by real Afghan brides.
But the days when brides-to-be would flock to the shops of central Kabul's Shar-e-Now Park may be numbered. Conservative elements of Hamid Karzai's government are pushing for far-reaching restrictions on weddings the likes of which have not been seen since the Taliban regime.
Under a new law proposed by the country's justice ministry and soon to be considered by Karzai's cabinet, "garments contrary to Islamic sharia" will be banned. Those dealing in "outfits that are semi-naked, naked, transparent, or tight in a way that reveals part of the woman's body" will be fined and, if they persist, closed down.
When plans to regulate Afghanistan's booming wedding industry were announced earlier in the year, the government said it merely wanted to curb the country's mania for lavish weddings that drag people into serious debt.
But according to drafts of the law seen by the Guardian, the government is also aiming to introduce various public morality provisions in yet another sign of the casual erosion of the small freedoms women have won since 2001.
And in an echo of the Taliban regime, which used to police weddings to ensure they complied with hardline rulings including a ban on music, the government also intends to set up "committees" to monitor weddings.
The groups, which will include representatives of the religious affairs ministry, will be expected to patrol private ceremonies held in the garish, multistorey wedding halls on the edge of Kabul that light up the night sky with their elaborate neon facades.
Among their duties will be ensuring male and female guests do not mix in the same rooms – already a standard practice in most Afghan weddings – and that the bride is modestly attired.
Muhiuddin Alizada, the owner of Qasre Aros, looked bewildered when he was shown a copy of the draft law for the first time this week.
"This is pointless because the mullahs will not be happy unless the women are wearing burqas," he said. "It is all because of pressure from the Taliban."
Human rights activists are similarly aghast. "A number of experts who have looked at the draft law are of the view that it interferes with private family life and could well be inconsistent with sharia principles and the constitution," said Georgette Gagnon, the UN director of human rights in Afghanistan.
Other shopkeepers were more understanding, even though none of them had a single item of stock that was "sharia compliant".
"We are Muslims and women should dress modestly," said Muhammad Shah, a young entrepreneur whose shop is packed full of brightly coloured dresses that look all the more lurid under the pink fluorescent bulbs of the shop.
But moments later he concluded that there was no way such a law could be enforced.
"Even during the Taliban regimes people were still wearing these types of dresses," said Shah. "Gambling is haram but the government can't even stop that."
Sadia, a 26-year-old who got married on Thursday, was outraged by the idea that the government might try to stop her wearing the white, bare-shouldered glittery creation she chose for her wedding.
"When I'm wearing this dress I feel very beautiful. Why shouldn't I wear it?" she told the Guardian during a four-hour session in a beauty parlour on the morning of her wedding.
"If I don't wear it people will think I have a very bad husband who says I cannot wear these things. This is a day I will remember all my life and every girl is hoping to wear these clothes."
Under the proposed law, not only would she have to be more frumpily attired, she would also have to go for something far cheaper. The government wants to impose a maximum spend on wedding dresses of just over $100.
Alizada says his cheapest frock is $222, a dowdy thing that has been used more than four times. Most brides rent their dresses, paying anything between $200 and $400. If they buy they have to pay more than $1,000.
The law also bans large parties in wedding halls to celebrate the many other ceremonies associated with an Afghan wedding including henna night, engagement, and a post-wedding event known as Takht Jami.
Wedding guests will be limited to 300 and selections of food will be regulated by local government officials to ensure no more than $5 is spent per person.