Can we all get along?
It appears not.
As of February 25, 2012, the death toll in Afghanistan keeps climbing (28 killed in one week of rioting), but this time it’s not because of terrorism, or because of some sneaky campaign by the Taliban or al Qaeda. No, on this occasion it’s because some American troops accidentally—or, perhaps, intentionally—incinerated a number of Qur'ans, the sacred text of the Muslim faith. It is not yet clear precisely who is to blame for this grievous error in judgment, but what we do know is that a number of Afghans were somehow able to recover partially-incinerated Qur'ans from a rubbish heap at a US military base. Once in possession of the Qur'ans, the Afghans blamed US personnel for setting fire to the Qur'ans. In response, US military leaders in Afghanistan have insisted that they will need to thoroughly investigate the incident before drawing any definitive conclusions, however, more than one of those commanders has also simultaneously admitted some level of culpability by openly expressing regret, and, in some cases, even apologizing for the incident in question.
Far from forgiveness, restive throngs of Afghans immediately began to mass at US bases throughout Afghanistan. Though US leaders up the chain of command all the way to President Obama have issued apologies over the past week, Afghans have not been in the mood to forgive and forget. While they have solemnly tolerated the ignominy of a seemingly endless occupation by the US military, the insult to their religion is the straw that has finally broken the camel’s back.
All week long, Afghans have begun venting their rage on US personnel, which, though understandable, is deeply unfortunate. The vast majority of soldiers who have become the target of Afghan outrage doubtless had little or nothing to do with the destruction of the Qur'ans. Nevertheless, because they are wearing US uniforms—or, in other words, because they fit into a clearly-defined and (at the moment) thoroughly-despised profile—in the eyes of Afghans they have become objects of hatred, scorn, and violence. As with all hate-inspired crimes, it is the innocents who suffer. There is no justice in hate; hate only serves to amplify hate. Worse still is when hate crimes are inflicted in the name of a religion that, in truth, professes a much higher moral standard.
The war on terror is just going to keep getting uglier by the day until people in the west begin to see the side to Islam that embraces peace, love and forgiveness every bit as much as Christianity does. For now, westerners tend to see the nasty side of Islam repeated over and over again: jihad, violence and destruction. It may be unfair, but this has increasingly become the master narrative in the west, and Muslim leaders have got to find a way to deal with and rewrite that narrative.
On the flip side, if Americans are surprised by the scale, scope, and duration of the riots that are taking place in Afghanistan, they shouldn’t be. The Afghans have been kicked around for a long time—most recently by the US, but before that there was the Taliban, and before that there was the USSR, and before that….Well, I guess you get the point. The Afghans are a put-upon people, but they are also a fractious, and a fiercely independent people. Since time immemorial, no single occupier has succeeded in cheerfully unifying Afghanistan. Afghans have their own opinions, and they are willing to fight for them.
Sadly, this is something that the US seemed to understand in the 1980s when the US was an unflinching ally of Afghanistan and supported Afghan freedom fighters in opposing the condemnable Soviet occupation. When the US fought side-by-side with the Afghans to help them achieve independence from Soviet aggression, the US and Afghans could be friends and allies. In becoming the occupying power, the US has somehow forgotten that a fiercely independent people, like the Afghans, don’t want to be told how to do anything—not even how to be a free, independent, democratic society.
As the current melee worsens, it is increasingly difficult to believe that the US presence in Afghanistan is a “friendly occupation.” It is very possible that, one day, the US will be a friend and ally to Afghanistan again. We have done it before, and we can do it again. But, importantly, we can’t do it as an occupying power. If we’re going to clear up the burgeoning mess in Afghanistan, then the US will need to find its way back to its lost friendship as a collaborator with Afghanistan, not an occupier.
It’s a long shot, but it’s possible.
What we have to remember is that the Afghans counted the US as its friend and ally when the US was committed to helping Afghanistan become liberated from the tyranny and oppression of an occupying power. What Afghans want most of all is what Americans want most of all: freedom, self-determination, justice, democracy.
So long as the US continues its occupation, the US will continue to look more like the enemy of Afghanistan, and the enemy of freedom. Thus, we have got to find a way to pull out, and the sooner, the better.
President Obama has a plan to end the occupation of Afghanistan. If we want to renew our friendship with Afghanistan, and if we want to end the violence in Afghanistan, then we need to move forward right away with Obama’s plan to end the occupation.
Peace and freedom for everyone. Peace and freedom now.
Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University - Pueblo.