In its May 9 issue, the US-based magazine "Newsweek" alleged that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." This news sparked an angry reaction from students at the medical college at Nangarhar University, located on the outskirts of Jalalabad, the provincial capital.
Initially the students held a peaceful rally and tried to block the main road connecting Jalalabad to Kabul. They also read a statement which called on Islamic countries to show their anger over the alleged desecration of the Koran by holding demonstrations; demanded that the United States release all of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay; and condemned Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decision to request that the US build military bases in Afghanistan.
Anti-United States and Afghan government sentiment beyond the "Newsweek" story were apparent from the outset of the rallies. For the first time since communists ruled the country in the 1980s or when the Taliban were in charge in the late 1990s, US flags were burned on Afghan soil. Chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Karzai" were coming from the protestors.
On May 11, the demonstrators became violent, entering the city of Jalalabad and destroying government properties and buildings housing the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan as well as a nongovernmental organization. The protestors also damaged the Pakistani consulate and the counsel's residence. Four protestors were killed and scores injured before Afghan security and military forces regained control.
Violence continued on May 12 in the Khogiani District of Nangarhar, in the Chak District of Wardak Province to west of Nangarhar, claiming three more lives.
Afghan authorities have blamed the "enemies of peace and stability" for turning an otherwise peaceful demonstration, which President Karzai has called a "manifestation of democracy" in his country, into a violent confrontation. The authorities have not identified these elements, nor have any of the dozen or so people arrested in connection to the Jalalabad events been linked to any particular group.
On May 12, demonstrators in Kabul and other cities, made more specific demands, including an apology from the United States; a trial by an Islamic court of those who allegedly carried out the act of desecration; a promise from the US that such an act will not be repeated; and that US-led coalition forces do not enter the houses of people during search operations.
A day later, on May 13, the demonstrations spread to northeastern Badakhshan and southeastern Paktiya provinces, where four more people were reported to have been killed, bringing the death toll to 11.
One of the protestors in Kabul on May 12 held a sign in Pashto which read: "The Holy Koran is Our Soul!" For Muslims, their holy book has an importance that can get lost if compared to the meaning of the Bible to Christians. According to the "Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World," for Muslims the Koran is "alive and has quasi-human personality." It is perhaps similar to what Jesus Christ is to devout Christians or the Torah is for Jews. As such, any act of disrespect of the Koran is viewed as an affront to God and his laws. Therefore, the anger expressed by the students at Nangarhar University is understandable when considered in this context. However the fact that the protests of the demonstrators went from the alleged case of disrespect for the Koran to the issue of the United States establishing military bases in Afghanistan, searches of private home by US troops, and Karzai government's alliance with Washington, may be an indication of the existence of other agendas behind the rallies.
Moreover, the demonstrators in Jalalabad were targeting specific buildings to attack. It was not a wanton act of violence. As such, targeting Pakistani diplomatic establishments in the city may not be without significance. Despite Islamabad's claim that its consulate was not targeted on purpose, questions are raised as to why this particular foreign diplomatic mission was singled out.
The issue of US bases in Afghanistan has been on the front page of most Afghan publications for some time. Particularly since Karzai formally proposed a "strategic partnership" on May 8 before an assembly of some 1,000 well-known Afghans. The most common reaction to the military-base issue is that final the decision should be left to the Afghan parliament, which is scheduled to be elected in September. Many Afghan politicians, especially those who have lost power recently, have equated the presence of the US military in the country with a continuation of Karzai's administration. While not openly critical of the US and the rest of the foreign military presence in the country, these politicians have expressed uneasiness about the issue. The demonstrations loudly echoed those hushed sentiments.
The issue of searching homes is more isolated and localized to Nangarhar. In late April, a demonstration by representatives of the Khogiani, Sherzad, Hesarak, and Pachir wa Agam districts was held in Jalalabad protesting such searches. Nangarhar Governor Haji Din Mohammad, after meeting with representatives of the demonstrators, promised to solve the problem (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," May 9 2005). As such, the inclusion of this issue in the demands of demonstrators coming from Nangarhar is not surprising, but the fact that this issue made its way to the Kabul University campus illustrates a more organized planning for what ought to have been spontaneous rallies if they were triggered only by the "Newsweek" story and not fueled by other factors.
The attack on the Pakistani Consulate also is worth pondering. Why would students ostensibly angered by an alleged act by US interrogators burn the diplomatic mission of a country that has officially contacted Washington on the issue and its parliament has condemned the alleged act with the Koran? If the allegation about abuse of the Koran was central to the demonstrations, Pakistan's consulate should have received praise, not firebombs.
IS SOMEONE BEHIND THE DEMONSTRATIONS?
Thus far both the Afghan government and the demonstrators have refused to identify the "enemies of peace and stability" who are allegedly behind the violence, including the attack on the Pakistani Consulate.
No one has pointed a finger at the neo-Taliban and the militia's spokesman, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, told Kabul-based Tolu Television on May 11 that they had not provoked the demonstrations. Also, Jalalabad is not considered a neo-Taliban stronghold, and Badakhshan is one of only two provinces in Afghanistan that the former Taliban regime could not conquer.
On May 11 -- a night letter reminiscent of the days when Afghans were struggling against Soviet troops in their country -- was circulated in parts of Kabul. Without making any reference to the events in Jalalabad, the letter announced that the "principle duty of the Mujahedin has just started." The unsigned letter condemns the possibility of the establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan and alleges that Karzai and the former Taliban members are in an alliance with the purpose of turning Afghanistan into a US satellite state.
The timing of the demonstrations and the demands associated with them seem to be well coordinated to coincide with President Karzai's visit to Europe and the United States.
Which countries in Afghanistan's neighborhood oppose the development of a long-term US-Afghan partnership -- if such a thing is indeed accepted by both states' leaders and by the Afghan parliament? Or, who has lost power since Karzai's victory in October's presidential elections? If a clear answer can be found to these questions, then perhaps the true identity of those fueling the demonstrations in Afghanistan would also be known.
Amin Tarzi is the Afghanistan analyst for RFE/RL Online and the editor of the "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report."