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Sunday, February 26

Not Since Mazar-i-Sharif, or why the story of the Koran burning incident at Bagram Airfield is improbable

I'll preface this post with a question to American readers: Do you think there's anyone in U.S. law enforcement, from the Department of Justice and FBI all the way down to the local police forces, who doesn't know about the incident Americans refer to simply as "Waco?"(1)

The answer, of course, is "Of course not." Even if police memories about details of the siege and disastrous storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco got a little hazy over the years, the bombing in Oklahoma City -- the worst terrorist incident in American history up to that time -- done in part to avenge Waco, refreshed them.

The fallout from Waco arguably changed the entire American culture and very definitely changed the culture of U.S. law enforcement. One consequence is that even the most stupid American law enforcement official knows one thing about Waco: Never do that again.

Agreed?

All right. Now I'll proceed to the February 22, 2012 Koran burning incident at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Prior to the incident, if there was one thing even the most stupid ISAF officer in Afghanistan knew, it was never burn a Koran within sight or earshot of a Muslim. This knowledge reached all the way down to the grunt level, and in particular the American grunt level.

Why?

Because before and after deployment to Afghanistan, everyone in the NATO forces is given 'sensitivity' training about the handling of Islamic religious materials -- training that was stepped up last year.

Why last year?

Because on April 1, 2011 a mob of thousands of Afghans overwhelmed guards at a lightly guarded United Nations compound in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and murdered seven UN workers -- four Nepali guards and three Europeans -- and according to UN officials beheaded two of the victims, although the Afghan government later denied that the beheadings had occurred. (2)

The mob was particularly enraged because it couldn't find any Americans to kill; at that time Mazar-i-Sharif was the 'safest' city in Afghanistan, so safe that U.S. troops no longer patrolled there in any significant number.

The Afghan rioters didn't stop with murder; they tried to destroy the compound, burning down part of it and trying to dismantle the rest, cement block by cement block, with their bare hands.

Now why did thousands of Afghans in a city that was probably less anti-American than other in Afghanistan suddenly set out to kill Americans?

Because they'd been whipped up by three conservative Muslim clerics in the pay of the Afghan government, who called in sermons at a large mosque to avenge the burning of a Koran in the USA by American pastor named Terry Jones.(3)

How did the clerics learn about the Koran burning incident in the USA?

Because Afghan President Hamid Karzai told them. To be sure that as many Afghans as possible knew about the Koran burning incident, on March 31 -- the day before the UN compound was stormed -- he made a public declaration about it and denounced it as an affront to Islam. Prior to that very few Afghans knew about the incident, which had occurred on March 20, 2011.(2)

There's a reason very few Afghans knew of the incident but I'm telling you just enough at this point to get across that the NATO command in Afghanistan was traumatized by the incidents that those who closely follow the war refer to simply as "Mazar-i-Sharif" even though the rioting spread to another city, Kandahar.

If my memory serves, in all 24 people across Afghanistan were killed in the rioting over the burned Koran. If the number doesn't sound very alarming, Mazar-i-Sharif was the first time that rioting on that scale against the United States was carried out in an urban setting in Afghanistan and in an area where the Taliban didn't have sway. According to one Afghan official the mob in Mazar-i-Sharif was as large as 20,000. If the number wasn't quite that large, it was definitely several thousand.

The rioting in Kandahar, where the riots were nowhere near as large as in Mazar-i-Sharif, wasn't so alarming because the Taliban there had clearly decided to make hay from the storming of the UN compound. For more than a year prior Taliban had been making inroads in the city, traditionally the stronghold of the 'Northern Alliance,' but the attack on the UN compound was not instigated by Taliban.

The Mazar-i-Sharif incident and its implications were so serious that General David Petraeus, at that time commander of ISAF, made a rather extraordinary public appeal to Americans, which the Wall Street Journal discussed in an April 4, 2011 report headlined, Petraeus says Quran burning endangers war effort.(4) He said in part:
"Every security force leader's worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob, if you will, especially one that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions ...
Yes. That was the nightmare, and that is why NATO stepped up its sensitivity training last year.

I've touched on incidents surrounding the Mazar-i-Sharif attack to focus on the fact that the Koran burning incident at Bagram was highly improbable. This is particularly the case given how the incident was described to a Reuters correspondent by alleged eyewitnesses. This doesn't mean the eyewitnesses were lying or wholly or in part mistaken about what they saw; it means that it's almost outside the bounds of possibility that three U.S. soldiers at Bagram would burn copies of the Koran within sight of Muslims. Yet according to the eyewitnesses, that's what happened:
BAGRAM - In a small room near NATO's sprawling Bagram Airbase, Sayed Jamil fumes as he remembers how three U.S. soldiers ignored the pleas of fellow laborers not to burn dozens of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Jamil, 22, was with other workers at a disposal centre inside the base when a woman and two men, wearing U.S. military uniforms, arrived on Monday in a truck piled with religious material and books.

While the vehicle was stopped at the centre gate, another laborer named Wali glanced in the back and saw the Korans, which the Americans dumped into an oven.
[...]
"I was ready to shed my blood and kill them or be killed," Jamil told Reuters, sitting in a heavy winter jacket, a checked scarf tied tight around his neck.

The laborers, after learning from Wali what was in the truck, rushed to the oven to stop what NATO has called a tragic blunder. Their account could not be independently verified, but was backed by local Afghan police and officials.

"We told the driver they were all religious materials and asked why they were burning them. The Americans said they were materials from prisons and they had orders to dispose of them," Jamil said.

The men plunged their hands into the oven to try to save the texts, some burning their fingers and hands as they pulled eight Koran copies from the fire, he said.

"The boys gathered and started shouting 'Allah u Akbar' (God is Greatest), clutching fragments of burning text to their chests," he said. "The truck fled the site with almost half the books still inside."
[...]
At the end of this writing I'm posting the entire Reuters report, which contains several interesting details. For now, the fallout from Mazar-i-Sharif virtually rules out that the Koran burning incident at Bagram was a "blunder." Even at a small, remote base in Afghanistan the incident is improbable but at Bagram, which houses not only U.S. troops but also NATO/ISAF command posts as well as civilian U.S. government personnel and a prison, the incident verges on the impossible.(5)

Even if a certifiably insane officer had signed off on the order, or even if the soldiers had somehow misunderstood the order, are we expected to assume that no less than three U.S. soldiers at Bagram -- Gossip Central for the U.S. command in Afghanistan -- were unaware of Mazar-i-Sharif and Gen. Petraeus's plea?

Even if the soldiers were at first unaware that the material loaded into the truck was copies of the Koran, from the laborer's account they were made aware by the Afghans who were party to the incident. So the soldiers would have known they were burning Korans within eyesight of Muslims -- again, a highly improbable act.

In fact, the act as described to the Reuters correspondent, was so improbable that from his report, the Afghans who spoke with him clearly didn't believe it was a blunder; they believed American soldiers were always trying to test the faith of Afghan Muslims. In consideration of Mazar-i-Sharif and the fact that at the time all of Afghanistan was bone-dry tinder just waiting for a match, the soldiers wouldn't have chosen that particular means to test the Afghan laborers' faith.

Bagram and every U.S. base in Afghanistan would have been on high alert at that time because the video of U.S. soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses had been widely circulated in the country. And Afghans who hadn't actually seen the video knew about it. The ensuing uproar hadn't even settled down by the time U.S. soldiers pulled up to an incineration facility at Bagram with copies of the Koran in tow.

The sprawling complex at Bagram has been the site of many terrorist incidents and rocket attacks since the U.S. invasion, few of which receive much if any press. So even if the soldiers weren't up on all the details of Mazar-i-Sharif and General Petraeus's public plea, and even if they'd dozed off during sensitivity training and skipped the part in the manual that read NEVER BURN A KORAN IN FRONT OF AFGHANS, they would have thought of the video after being confronted by hysterical Afghans and told each other, 'Maybe we better clarify our orders.'

But the video incident wasn't why Afghanistan was set to explode at that time. In the cities the rush to the exits, which had started when President Obama announced 2014 as the pullout date for U.S. combat troops and increased in pace after news of secret U.S. negotiations with Taliban in Qatar circulated in the country, had morphed into a stampede in the wake of SecDef Leon Panetta's February 1 announcement that the pullout date had been moved up by a year.

Any Afghan who had big money to protect was shipping it out of the country, officials in the Karzai were making frantic preparations to relocate to Dubai or other destinations, and a nation that depended for most its GDP on business generated by the NATO presence was facing the now very real prospect of imminent mass starvation and a civil war.

As for the American assurance that the USA would hang out in Afghanistan beyond 2014 -- Americans and their other NATO buddies had already stabbed Afghans in the back, and more than once. To assume they wouldn't do it again -- well, by the middle of this February Afghans had given up on assumptions other than one: Assume Americans are lying in their teeth about staying on in Afghanistan beyond next week.

On top of this was layered the consternation that once again Karzai had been circumvented in Western forces' secret negotiations with the Taliban; this time first in Germany then in Qatar.

No matter how many Afghans dislike Karzai and his regime, the lack of transparency about the negotiations told Afghans that they would have no decision about how far down the river NATO was going to sell them to Pakistan. And Karzai's attempt to persuade the public that he'd been a party to the negotiations had, by the eve of his departure for a trilateral summit in Pakistan, fizzled.

Worse, Karzai's attempt to save face by publicly confronting Pakistan's leaders at the summit about their support for the Taliban was treated with the diplomatic version of snickering in Washington and Islamabad. Karzai was considered so powerless that the officials who deigned to comment on his outburst could afford to be patronizing.

Layered on top of this was the 'urination video' uproar.

Layered on top of it all was the dressing down that Karzai received from a delegation of U.S. members of Congress because he was blocking finalization of the U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership over the issues of NATO night raids and U.S. control of prisons in Afghanistan. Doubtful the congress members would have perceived their little talk with Karzai as a dressing down, but that's how he would have seen it.

That brings us up to three days before the Koran burning incident at Bagram.

That was the situation in Afghanistan, a situation well known at Bagram, as it existed on the day of the Koran burning incident.

In light of the situation, I find it next to impossible that no less than three U.S. soldiers at Bagram would have ignored the pleas of Afghan laborers not to burn the Koran copies. Maybe a year earlier it could have happened, although even that would have been improbable, but not since Mazar-i-Sharif.

True, incidents considered impossible or near the edge of impossibility do happen. But as we know from The Hound of the Baskervilles, when faced with the highly improbable we need to attempt to rule out more probable explanations before we accept the seemingly impossible to be true.

In this case ruling out more probable explanations might prove to be extremely difficult even though two and possibly three official investigations of the Koran burning incident are underway. NATO launched an investigation; according to the Reuters report Karzai's government has launched one, and according to a televised news report I saw Friday, the U.S. military has "offered" to launch its own investigation.

One possible problem with these investigations is that key forensic evidence was given to the Karzai regime for its investigation before ISAF could examine it. See the Reuters report, below.

Another problem, if I read the Reuters report correctly, is that much of the evidence was removed from the scene before any investigator or even the three U.S. soldiers had a chance to examine it. The report doesn't specifically say but the wording suggests that the Afghan driver of the truck containing the bulk of the burn materials sped off when he saw the uproar, leaving the U.S. soldiers to radio for backup, including translators; the driver, it seems, being the only party to the incident who could translate for the laborers.

Then there is the problem with examining the accounts of the laborers. From the Reuters report, if looks as if the Karzai administration got to them first. And they are ostensibly so frightened of what ISAF or Afghan Army investigators might do to them that it would be unlikely anyone from the NATO investigation team could talk to them without a gaggle of "local officials," clerics, and a few people from the Interior Ministry present -- not the ideal circumstances for questioning a witness.

Here I interject that if my readers in Kabul are irritated that I seem to be casting unnecessary aspersions on the word of Afghans, I'm not letting anyone off the hook.

Right now, who controls Afghanistan is the highest-stakes poker game on the planet. That's even without the opium factor. There are several players at the table who want the USA out of the country right away, and who would pay any amount of money to see this happen.

So there's the possibility that one or more of the three American soldiers took a bribe to set off a firestorm, or that their commanding officer did -- or that someone or more than one person at ISAF who's connected with the disposal of sensitive materials did; if so, it wouldn't be the first bribery scandal to hit Bagram.(5) But the emphasis in the Reuters report is on the account given by the Afghan parties to the incident, so that is where I'm focusing questions in my little foray as armchair detective.

Another question may be nothing more than an inconsequential detail that could be dismissed with knowledge of garbage-disposal procedures at the Bagram complex. I referred to the burn site as a 'burn pit' when I first wrote about the incident; in this I was following how news reports referred to the site; even today I saw a report in a British paper that referred to the site as a burn pit. But from the Reuters report, the Korans were placed in an "incinerator oven."

I'd assume there are burn pits at Bagram, given the large amount of garbage the complex generates. But it would make sense if classified or other highly sensitive materials are disposed of in an incinerator, where it can be assured that scraps of paper don't escape the flames of a burn pit.

In that case, I'd assume that papers prepared for the incinerator had covers or in some other way the materials were hidden so that civilians, such as Afghan trash disposal experts, shall we call them, couldn't see the material they loaded into the ovens. I'd assume the same could apply to even to U.S. soldiers tasked with burning sensitive material. But from the Reuters account, the nature of the materials on the truck was plainly visible -- no covers on the Korans, nothing.

Also, I note that Jamil referred in the plural to prisons; if the translator didn't hear wrong, that could suggest Bagram is a site for disposal of sensitive material taken from all U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan. I'd assume in that case that an order for disposal of such material is subject to closer scrutiny than one signing off on disposal of regular garbage.

Then I have questions about the incinerator oven itself. I am not the expert on incinerators but I think they work on a different principle than a burn pit, and that you wouldn't have a hand left to suffer burns if you stuck one in an incinerator after its process had started -- if you could even open the incinerator door at that point. Don't they come outfitted with safety locks that prevent the door from being opened once the incinerator has started? At least, the modern ones?

I'm just asking; I haven't had time to research incinerators and don't know the year and model of the one at Bagram. Maybe it was left over from the Soviet occupation and works on the bellows principle.

Again, such questions might easily be answered by a knowledge of procedures at the airfield, but I broach them to illustrate how fine the tooth comb must be when examining an incident that on the surface is improbable. Before turning over the platform to Reuters, one more quote from the report:
German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman for coalition forces, said on Wednesday that after 10 years of NATO experience in Afghanistan, soldiers should have known to check with cultural advisers attached to their units on how to properly dispose of religious material.
I'm betting they did know; i.e., given the reasons I've laid out in this post I think Jacobson is right -- they should have known and followed proper procedure. Of course this doesn't make it definite that they did know and follow; "tragic blunders" can happen. But I've brought up for review information that I think should raise a reasonable doubt about the Koran burning story, as it's been described to the press by officialdom and the Afghan laborers who spoke to Reuters.

I've done this because I'm concerned that NATO (and/or the Karzai administration) might be so eager to put the issue to bed that they won't dwell on inconsistencies in the evidence or testimony that could drag out an inquiry, on the theory this could further inflame Afghan passions.

Yet at least 30 people have already died because of the Koran burning story, including four U.S. soldiers, and many more have been wounded, including seven Special Forces troops. And right now America's name is mud in Afghanistan, and many Afghans are calling for the trial and hanging of the American soldiers alleged to have burned copies of the Koran.

So what I've tried to do in this post is make a case for a transparent forensic investigation of an incident that as described is very unlikely. Both the Afghans and Americans are entitled to such an investigation.

Afghan laborer recalls rage as he tried to save charred Korans

By Hamid Shalizi
February 23, 2012
Reuters

BAGRAM - In a small room near NATO's sprawling Bagram Airbase, Sayed Jamil fumes as he remembers how three U.S. soldiers ignored the pleas of fellow laborers not to burn dozens of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Jamil, 22, was with other workers at a disposal centre inside the base when a woman and two men, wearing U.S. military uniforms, arrived on Monday in a truck piled with religious material and books.

While the vehicle was stopped at the centre gate, another laborer named Wali glanced in the back and saw the Korans, which the Americans dumped into an oven.

The burning of the holy books lasted just five minutes, but that short action could complicate U.S.-led efforts to pacify Afghanistan before NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.

"I was ready to shed my blood and kill them or be killed," Jamil told Reuters, sitting in a heavy winter jacket, a checked scarf tied tight around his neck.

The laborers, after learning from Wali what was in the truck, rushed to the oven to stop what NATO has called a tragic blunder. Their account could not be independently verified, but was backed by local Afghan police and officials.

"We told the driver they were all religious materials and asked why they were burning them. The Americans said they were materials from prisons and they had orders to dispose of them," Jamil said.

The men plunged their hands into the oven to try to save the texts, some burning their fingers and hands as they pulled eight Koran copies from the fire, he said.

"The boys gathered and started shouting 'Allah u Akbar' (God is Greatest), clutching fragments of burning text to their chests," he said. "The truck fled the site with almost half the books still inside."

VIOLENT PROTESTS

Thousands of Afghans have staged violent protests for three days over an incident that highlights the deep cultural divide that still exists ten years after U.S. troops invaded to oust the Taliban.

Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has launched an investigation into the incident, for which U.S. President Barack Obama and NATO commanders have offered apologies, blaming a lack of religious and cultural understanding.

NATO's top commander in the country, U.S. Marine General John Allen, ordered his troops to complete additional training by March 3 on the identification, significance and proper handling of religious materials.

Jamil said U.S. soldiers were at first willing to allow them to take away the charred remains of the Korans, explaining how some parts made their way outside the base, but said arriving Afghan interpreters immediately realized the material could incite rage on the streets.

"The Americans first told us through the translators 'we don't want your Korans, take them away'. The Afghan "dog washers" intervened and told the Americans, 'If you let them take these books out, there will be a disaster'," he said.

Eventually freed with the material, the men ran out into the streets, waking people up and shouting about the transgression, which added fresh fuel to widespread anger that already exists over civilian deaths and intrusive NATO night raids.

Now sitting under a picture of one of Afghanistan's most famous heroes, the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Masood, Jamil said he and the other laborers were afraid of retaliation by NATO or Afghan security forces.

"We have done a heroic job of saving and serving our religion. But we are also afraid of being taken and disappearing," he said. Others nearby offered support, including Afghan local officials and police, and a mullah who said they were heroes "whose faces should be famous."

"No one can touch you guys. All the people of Afghanistan stand by you. Don't be afraid," one government official said. Their material was handed to Afghan government officials for evidence, while their actions were praised by Karzai.

CULTURAL, RELIGIOUS SENSITIVITIES

German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman for coalition forces, said on Wednesday that after 10 years of NATO experience in Afghanistan, soldiers should have known to check with cultural advisers attached to their units on how to properly dispose of religious material.

All members of 50-nation coalition provided cultural and religious sensitivity training to troops before and after they deployed to the country, Jacobson said.

He declined to confirm comments to Reuters by a senior U.S. official that the material had been removed from a library at Parwan detention center at the base because of concerns that some was extremist in nature and being used to pass messages among prisoners.

Jamil said he believed the actions of the soldiers had been "intentional and stupid," while the Taliban urged Afghans to kill and beat Western soldiers.

Bagram Police Chief Abdul Hafiz Mutawakkil said the Americans in the country had little awareness of Afghanistan's complex tribal and religious currents.

"Otherwise no one would do such stupidity," he said, watching over elite Afghan police securing deserted shops and streets where thousands rioted on Tuesday, as NATO helicopters fired flares in a bid to halt the quickly-spreading violence.

"Those who are aware and committed to religious values never commit such actions, but those not aware of other religions ... do such things out of ignorance," Mutawakkil said.

Jawad, one of the laborers, said he no longer wanted to work at the base, despite relatively good wages of $650 a month in a country where more than a third live under the poverty line.

"The Americans always do such blasphemy to test how strong our Muslim faith is. It is best for us that the government provide us with another job," Jawad said.

(Writing by Rob Taylor, editing by Michael Georgy)

1) Waco Siege, Wikipedia

2) Afghans Avenge Florida Koran Burning, Killing 12; April 1, 2011, The New York Times

3) Dove World Quran burning controversy, Wikipedia

4) Petraeus says Quran burning endangers war effort; April 4, 2011, The Wall Street Journal

5) Bagram Airfield, Wikipedia

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Comments:
You're betting they did know.

Rather cryptic, but in my own way I agree. But I don't see a plot, if I have to speculate...GI's who don't like the locals, are also feeling fed up and sold out, and wanted to fck with them. Or don't care.

That's an educated guess at best. I understand the mindset.

I'd be interested to know your take. It was a cryptic ending.
 
Too cryptic, I realized after reading your comments, which I didn't intend. It was just an abrupt ending -- I've never been big on the wrap-up. So I've added passages after my "betting" remark that I hope clarify it.
 
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