NATO soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are among those taking the heat of Muslim anger about the Mohammed caricatures which appeared in various European newspapers. How worried should they be?
Security has been beefed up in Afghanistan
Everyone at NATO headquarters in Kabul is doing their best to stay level-headed in the face of growing hostility on their doorstep.
On Tuesday, police opened fire on a mob of nearly 300 people trying to storm a NATO peacekeeping base housing Norwegian troops in the northwestern town of Maymana on Tuesday, killing four people and injuring five Norwegians.
US military base in Qalat on Feb. 8.
A day later, hundreds of protesters gathered in the town of Qalat, in Zabul province in the south, hurling stones at police and torching vehicles.
But Annie Gibson-Sextet, spokeswoman with the ISAF in Kabul, pointed out that the demonstrations were not targeted specifically at the peace-keeping forces and that similar scenes have been taking place across the globe.
"The protests were not particularly against NATO troops based on our performance," she stressed. "As ISAF troops, we are accepted. The people see us doing what our task actually is -- providing security."
Not calm, n ot stable
And ultimately, has anything changed? Even before this week's incidents, the Bundeswehr's official assessment of the situation in Afghanistan was "not calm and not stable."
The Bundeswehr makes up the largest ISAF contingent
But Bernhard Gertz, president of the German Bundeswehr Association, believes the protests are significant.
"This is the first time there's been a deliberate attack on ISAF troops," he said, pointing out that it would inevitably have repercussions on the 9000-strong force, 2200 of which are German.
Until now, NATO soldiers have met with a positive reception, but according to Gertz, radical Muslims have used the caricature controversy to stir up resentment in the local population.
"I suspect this is not just a flash-in-the-pan," he said, but stressed that President Hamid Karsai's government would do its best to contain the troubles. "Tribal leaders also have a vested interest in de-escalating the conflict."
Opium age n da
Michael Pohly, an Afghanistan expert at Berlin's Free University, disagreed, adding that he believes that local warlords may even be behind the protests.
"If the ISAF has to scale down its activities then it will also be less effective in tackling opium production," he said.
Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
"The protests allow tribal leaders to strengthen their position," said Citha Maass from the Foundation for Science and Politics in Berlin, pointing out that religious controversies will always be inflammatory -- as illustrated in May 2005 when the international media sparked protests across the Muslim world by reporting cases of alleged Koran desecration at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.
But Maass also argued that a worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan was only to be expected.
"After the Taliban was toppled there was an initial period of calm," she said. "But instability is inevitable given growing provincial rivalries as well as Taliban infiltration from Pakistan."
Afghanistan expert Pohly meanwhile said he thinks the protests are an expression of a creeping dissatisfaction.
"Understandably, locals are asking what the peace dividends actually are," he said. "There's a lot of frustration, so the situation could easily escalate."