Some months ago, President Hamid Karzai, the frequently embattled Afghan leader, announced that Mazar-i-Sharif, a city of 1 million people in northern Afghanistan, would be among the first of seven municipalities and provinces to be transferred to the control of Afghan military forces.
It will be the first, then, from which the armies of the US and its allies are to depart. This momentous occasion is scheduled for July, a deadline set in December 2009 and, as yet, still repeated by President Barack Obama.
With Osama gone, the US to follow?
With the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this month, some observers here say that one of the paramount goals in the "war on terror"—"to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaida"—has in some measure been achieved. It also appears the US is gradually awakening to what President Karzai and other Afghans have openly expressed for years: that the war on terror is being played out on the wrong battlefield; Pakistan is the haven for terrorist insurgents, not Afghanistan.
Osama's death has war-weary Afghans and Americans now asking the obvious: Will the withdrawal of US troops be faster and bigger than originally planned?
While most people here would delight at the prospect of a peaceful, sovereign nation free of foreign forces, many also question the effects of Americans leaving too soon and handing off responsibility to an Afghan army and police whose ability to secure the country is already in doubt. But the question remains urgent nonetheless.
While many anticipate a democracy movement emerging similar to those in the Middle East this year, this is highly unlikely so long as 98,000 US and allied troops are on the ground. In effect, the Western presence has come to fuel the very sort of conservative, religious-based fundamentalism that is one force, here as elsewhere, holding democratic impulses in check.
Events inflamed by Quran burning
Not long after Karzai's announcement about Mazar-i-Sharif, events took an abrupt and tragic turn. Not quite two weeks later, on April 1, came the news that Terry Jones, the now-infamous Florida fundamentalist preacher, had publicly burned a copy of the Quran—an extraordinarily provocative miscalculation by any measure.
Jones' action prompted widespread demonstrations throughout the country. Mazar-i-Sharif, a relatively liberal and peaceful city that, just days before the protests, was attracting immense crowds of visitors for the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It was the first of half a dozen cities to be jolted by the demonstrations—and they were the most violent.
The violence in Mazar came as a surprise bordering on shock. The city is assumed to be one of the safest in the country, which is one reason it was chosen to be among the first to manage under the control of Afghan forces. If this can happen in Mazar, what of the rest of this nation-in-the-making?
One senior Afghan official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, was at a loss to recount the hostility and brutality he saw unleashed during the demonstrations. The death toll was 12—five Afghan civilians, four Nepalese guards, a Norwegian, a Romanian and a Swede. The three Europeans were UN staff. "I can't describe it," he said as he tried to recall the scene where the bodies of the U.N. employees were found. "The method used to kill the three Europeans was indescribable, completely barbaric."
"The demonstrators," he said, "used anything they could find to kill the workers – stones, metal rods, knives – kicking, punching and shooting."
The events leading up to the violent deaths began shortly after Friday prayers on April 1 at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali. This is a well-known place of worship in the center of the city, known as the Blue Mosque for the color of its tiling. In the early afternoon, a crowd outside the mosque was listening to the emotional and sometimes provocative speeches of students and clerics who were condemning Jones's book burning.
Over the next few hours, the crowd swelled from several hundred to several thousand. The turning point came when an Islamic cleric announced that not just one, but hundreds of copies of the Qur'an had gone up in flames in Florida. At that point, the seething mob took to the street. The signs they carried read, "Death to all the Kufaar [infidels] of the world!" There were shouts calling for jihad and the grimly familiar chant, "Marg Bar Amrika!" meaning "Death to America."
The crowd marching toward the U.N. compound reached fever pitch once they arrived. Vehicles were smashed and set afire; guards were disarmed and beaten with rifle butts. The three European staff were found hiding in one of the compound's two safe rooms. Immediately after the violence ended, local media reported that two of the UN staff had been beheaded. But the senior Afghan official interviewed stopped short of confirming or denying reports of decapitations.
The message from the tragedy
Quite apart from the sheer tragedy of these incidents, there is a message in them for the rest of us. There are similarities between Afghanistan at this moment and the nations in the Middle East that have broken out this year in multiple movements for democracy. Afghanistan may not be destined to share a similar fate, however many observers and analysts here insist that it will. The decisive distinction lies in the US presence.
The Middle Eastern movements are about widespread corruption, growing unemployment and the overall injustice people see arising from their governments. Afghanistan is about American and allied troops and the injustices they perpetrate. The form protests take here is the result of anger and hostility against them.
After the events in Mazar, demonstrations broke out across the country, moving to the east and south to Kandahar, the nation's second-largest city. In the thick of these protests Abdullah Abdullah, the opposition leader who ran against Karzai in the 2009 elections and now heads an organization named Coalition for Change and Hope, held what seemed to some an almost grotesquely ill-timed seminar entitled "Lessons from Mideast and North Africa."
Then, again, at the beginning of May, immediately following the death of bin Laden, Abdullah Abdullah teamed up with Amrullah Saleh, former head of the National Directorate of Intelligence, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, to hold another rally, this time threatening to take protests to the streets if the Karzai administration negotiates a peace deal with the Taliban.
"Afghanistan will become worse than the Middle Eastern countries," Abdullah Abdullah said at his conference, "unless the government makes fundamental reforms."
Both events were anything but mistimed.
The dissatisfied young
As protests pick up around the country, so does the number of young people participating in them, particularly in cities such as Kabul, where major universities are located. The Afghan's young are full of expectation: This is obvious whenever one meets them. Since the sudden eruption of the Arab Spring earlier this year, many people here have speculated as to when something similar would appear and play out politically in Afghanistan.
But it's the wrong narrative, as Mazar and the others cities recently rocked by demonstrations have made painfully plain. Some analogy to the Middle East's path these past few months is, indeed, almost impossible to imagine. Given the Taliban's recent warning of a spring offensive, what is more likely to play out is an overall increase in NATO-led attacks, and thus an increase in civilian deaths. The result will be a spiraling hostility toward the US presence in the region. Protests similar to those in Middle Eastern countries, democracy the main objective, will come only as US and allied troops decrease in number and the Afghan police and army start assuming responsibility for the country's security.
Afghanistan and countries such as Egypt share obvious similarities: Islam is prevalent, the populations are young (nearly 70 percent of Afghans are under 25), there are widespread complaints of corruption, and there is widespread unemployment.
But there is a different focus. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere the oppressed have emerged as one. The object of the exercise has been the domestic ruling class, and very few people, if any, have had much to say about the role the United States is playing in the Middle East uprisings. This is fundamentally different here.
Egyptians stood in Tahrir Square chanting "Irhal! Irhal!" (Leave! Leave!) to oust Mubarak after three decades of repression. Afghans are chanting "Marg Bar Amrika!" to voice their growing resentment at the US's nine-year presence.
At this point, due to increases in nighttime air raids and civilian killings, passions are running very high over the US war here. Indeed, what happened in Mazar is best understood as the consequence of pent-up anger that has been building since a string of civilian deaths began in late February.
At that point, a team of Afghan investigators announced the deaths of 65 civilians in a NATO offensive in the eastern part of the country. The majority were said to be women and children. (As is often the case, the international forces disputed these claims, asserting that only insurgents were killed.)
A week after the investigators' report, NATO forces gunned down nine children gathering firewood. This time there seemed nothing to dispute. General David H. Petraeus, the US head of international forces in Afghanistan, issued a statement offering his sincerest apologies. The children, he said, had been mistaken for insurgents.
More killings at the hands of the Western allies followed: Karzai's cousin in an overnight NATO operation, the accidental killing of two more "suspected insurgents" – children ages 9 and 15. These were reported in the US media, but it was Der Spiegel, the German weekly, that identified the pattern.
"Kill Team" was the headline on its report, which featured images of US soldiers who posed for photographs with the dead; one of the soldiers, a 22-year-old army specialist named Jeremy Morlock, said in disturbing deadpan later in court, "The plan was to kill people."
Given recent events—the death of bin Laden, a new Taliban offensive under way with foreign troop numbers at their highest, and a growing number of civilian casualties—demonstrations unlike the Arab Spring kind are likely to continue and may be of the increasingly violent and deadly.
Earlier this week, in the northeastern province of Takhar, family members of four innocent civilians killed by a US Special Forces operation called local media and requested they come to the city center in Taliqan, the capital of Takhar, to view the bodies of the innocents killed. Journalists arrived to the central square where the four bodies were laid out and thousands of people gathered for the viewing.
The square where the demonstrations started was at first peaceful. But the events turned so violent so suddenly that army and police reinforcements had to be called in from outlying provinces and roads were blocked to further prevent more protesters entering from bordering districts. The fighting resulted in the deaths of 12 demonstrators; 80 more people were injured.
So much for winning hearts and minds, you might say.
No Facebook Generation
Burhanddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's former president and head of the High Peace Council –a body Karzai established to manage talks with the Taliban – delivers a message similar to Abdullah Abdullah's. "No doubt, if we neglect our responsibilities," he said, "the Facebook and Internet youths who are at the forefront of change in the society will take over leadership."
The thought of any kind of leadership arising from the "Facebook generation" conjures different feelings for different people here. Some applaud it. The more conservative, typically part of the older generation, are fearful that with the acceptance of modernity so will come the breakdown of societal values that, more often than not, accompanies the arrival of the modern.
Social media is important in bringing together the recent demonstrations in Afghanistan. But simpler media tools such as cell phones connect people here, not more advanced media such as Facebook and Twitter, crucial to demonstrators in the Middle East.
More than a third of the population in Afghanistan lives below the poverty line, and as in other impoverished countries, loudspeakers are still used here to spread news and gather crowds. True enough, the Facebook generation here is growing, but the medium is still used by just 0.57 percent of a population of 30 million people. It's hardly enough to form a revolution in the Middle East mold.
Afghanistan's pervasive corruption
As to the corruption that has fueled Middle Eastern movements, Afghans, especially the young, are anything but unaware of how pervasively it taints public life here. Talk of it dominates every conversation; ask any Afghan, and he or she will tell you it is impossible to get anything done without paying bribes. Year after year, the country consistently ranks among the world's most corrupt. But this is taken—again unlike the Middle East—with a kind of apathy. Not even the near collapse last September of Kabul Bank, the largest private institution in the country, after the government elite simply lent themselves too many millions of dollars to maintain lifestyles in Dubai, produced any anti-corruption protests.
Arash Barak, the director of Afghanistan Youth National and Social Organization, which is intended to give the young generation of Afghanistan a voice, says cities such as Kabul are not the problem when trying to create a democratic platform for young people; it is the villages that are the most challenging, and villages here are a more influential part of national life than in much of the more urbanized Middle East.
"In the villages, if a youth sees something wrong, he accepts it just because it was said by an elder or a mullah," Arash says. "If you see a youth who has just joined the Taliban, fighting against his own brother who is fighting for the Afghan army, this is because he was told to do so by an elder or a mullah."
All of this—the differently developed media, the apparent acquiescence in the face of vast corruption, the wave of NATO mistakes—means Afghanistan is neither Egypt nor Tunisia nor Libya. Most of all, this is a question of public sentiment and a kind of limited secularization in Afghan life. Public sentiment among Afghans is by and large reserved for religious conservatives. Elders and religious clerics still have the final say in most parts of the country.
Support fades for the US
Most people I've spoken with on the matter say that when the United States toppled the Taliban nearly a decade ago, Afghans were in full support. But with an ever-increasing sense of insecurity, night raids, and the civilian killings, this view no longer holds.
Mullah Abdul Aziz Khairkhwa, a former deputy provincial council chief and mullah in Ningarhar, a province east of Kabul, is quite blunt about this. "The Western democracy that has come to Afghanistan is against the wishes of the Afghans," he asserted when we spoke. "Afghans are very strong Muslims. There is extremism in this democracy."
Nearly two weeks after the Mazar-i-Sharif demonstrations, pockets of protests still flared. Curiously, top religious leaders in Kandahar called a shura, or gathering, to educate several hundred in the community on how to hold peaceful protests according to Islamic law.
While Karzai publicly condemned the demonstrations, he has said very little otherwise and has, indeed, come under criticism from the international community for provoking the demonstrations. Not much of this has been reported in the local media. Boiled down, the argument among Afghan editors and correspondents is that there is no need to risk another backlash because the views of one fundamentalist pastor in the US were not news.
Karzai's rising anti-Western stance
What the local media do report, often as subtext, unintentionally, is an increase in Karzai's anti-Western remarks in speeches. Opinion is divided as to whether this reflects a frayed relationship with President Obama, Karzai's difficulties uniting a nation so divided by ethnicities, ideologies, and tribal and sectarian frictions or as seen in the latest violent protests in Takhar province, the accidental killings of civilians by US special forces in effort to root out the insurgency.
This summer will be an important passage, in any event. As the Obama administration pursues its self-imposed deadline to start withdrawing the 98,000 US troops stationed here, starting in July, no one can predict what might develop. If, indeed, anything like a Middle Eastern situation develops here, and many do predict such an outcome, it will be only when the armies of the US and its allies have departed and the deafening sounds of protestors shouting "Marg Bar Amrika!" can no longer be heard.