Opinion: When anger leads to violence | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 23.02.2012
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Middle East

Opinion: When anger leads to violence

The violent protests that followed the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran in Afghanistan by NATO soldiers have continued unabated. DW's Sandra Petersmann questions the training and the attitude of NATO forces.

Apologies. Again and again, apologies. For airstrikes that kill civilians. For soldiers who urinate on the bloodied corpses of three Taliban insurgents, laughing. For soldiers, who cut off the fingers off their dead enemies to keep as trophies. For soldiers who burn the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

How many more times do Western politicians and generals want to apologize to the Afghan people? And are any of these apologies even making an impression with them?

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan is now in its 11th year. Over and over, NATO has stressed that it's about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. It's clear to everyone that without the support of the Afghan population, freedom and development will not be possible - no matter how long NATO stays or how many troops are sent in.

DW DP Moderatoren Petersmann DW DP Moderatoren Petersmann *** Becker-Rau CMS: 06.2009

DW's Sandra Petersmann

By now, it should be absolutely clear to all ISAF soldiers that Afghanistan is a very conservative and deeply religious country, and that they should go about their business with the utmost caution and sensibility. They must know that the Afghans have been living with war and violence for more than 30 years. That leaves an impression, fosters mistrust and strengthens faith, because religion provides one of the sole sources of support.

Western troops should be aware of all these factors, yet time and again there have been mistakes, cultural and religious misunderstandings and deliberate violations of the rules of engagement.

Though blame can only be attributed to a small minority of the more than 130,000 international soldiers, it's the behavior of the black sheep that destroys the trust in the West's entire Afghan mission. They give the Afghan people reason to believe that the international forces, with a mandate from the United Nations, are in actuality an occupying force.

The recent Koran-burning incident at the American Bagram air base, north of Kabul, has shown once again that it is above all US soldiers who have been making these mistakes. This could be easily justified by the fact that the US has sent the majority of the troops to the area, but that would be too simple an explanation. In fact, one must question the training, the preparation and the attitude of the American forces. In this respect, one is reminded of similar events in Iraq.

The ISAF commander, US General John Allen, has said that NATO soldiers will be required to undergo religious and cultural training by March 3, so that every soldier stationed in the country understands that in the eyes of observant Muslims, it's a sin to desecrate the Koran.

This is an admission of guilt, but whether it's enough to make Afghans forget the most recent incident remains to be seen. What's more likely is that even more Afghans will start doubting the intentions of the West – a heated situation that the Taliban will find easy to exploit.

The US soldiers who, whether out of ignorance or stupidity tossed the religious texts into the incinerator with the trash, have done themselves and their fellow soldiers a disservice. They have driven a further wedge between the NATO forces and the Afghan people.

Maybe, if there had been a common Afghanistan strategy with clear targets and orders from the very start, the many training deficiencies and mistakes could have been avoided. If only…

Author: Sandra Petersmann / cmk
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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