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Tuesday, February 28

Mystery of the Burned Bagram Korans: the plot thickens

Photo Caption: Afghan laborers who worked at the U.S. base in Bagram speak during an interview at a restaurant in Bagram north of Kabul February 23, 2012. 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 labourers not to burn dozens of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
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The excerpts I present below, from four news reports on the Koran burning incident at Bagram Airfield, present such striking discrepancies in the accounts of what transpired that a story that seemed so clear-cut at first (U.S. soldiers inadvertently burned Korans) qualifies as a genuine mystery. The mystery can't be chalked up to sloppy reporting; two of the reports -- the first and second ones I present -- represent two different stories.

If readers who were with this blog in the bad old days groan, 'Not another Chinese Pig Illness Mystery to solve' -- we had lots of data to pore over with that mystery, so of course we had to inch along day after day, week after week. There's not enough data publicly available at this point to even make a blindfolded stab at solving the Bagram Koran Burning mystery, but that shouldn't stop us from pondering anomalies in the anecdotal data that are available. The caveat is that it's such a mystery it might not turn out to be a mystery, but where's your sense of adventure?

The first excerpts I'll feature are taken from an Associated Press wire service report filed Tuesday, February 21 from Kabul, Afghanistan by Deb Riechmann; it seems to be the earliest comprehensive report on the Koran burning incident; in any event it was published by several press organizations and news websites as the 'breaking' news on the Koran incident, and it framed subsequent media discourse about the incident. (I'm not sure from the reports I've read whether the Koran burning took place at night on the 21st or in the wee hours of the 22nd.)
AP report via TIME magazine:
[...] Ahmad Zaki Zahed, chief of the provincial council, said U.S. military officials took him to a burn pit on the base where 60 to 70 books, including Korans, were recovered.

The books were used by detainees once incarcerated at the base, he said. "Some were all burned. Some were half-burned," Zahed said, adding that he did not know exactly how many Korans, the Muslim holy book, had been burned.

Zahed said five Afghans working at the pit told him that the religious books were in the garbage that two soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition transported to the pit in a truck late Monday night. When they realized the books were in the trash, the laborers worked to recover them, he said. "The laborers there showed me how their fingers were burned when they took the books out of the fire," he said.
[...]
Now I'll return to the Reuters report I featured it in its entirety in my February 26 post (Not Since Mazar-i-Sharif, or why the story of the Koran burning incident at Bagram Airfield is improbable), in which I also detailed a few of the questions I had about the workers' account of the incident. To review the salient passages from the Reuters report (published February 23) as they relate to the AP account.

(Clearly the meeting at the restaurant with the reporter, which took place inside Bagram Airfield underneath a photo of Masood, as cited in the Reuters caption, is not the interview site described in the report, although the photo of Masood seems to be ubiquitous. I'll assume the interview started at one site and finished at another but was described by the report as a single interview site for the sake of simplicity):
Afghan laborer recalls rage as he tried to save charred Korans

By Hamid Shalizi
(Writing by Rob Taylor, editing by Michael Georgy)

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."
[...]
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.
[...]
Now I'll turn to another Reuters report, published February 21 at 4:24 PM EST. The time suggests the report was filed in the early morning, Afghanistan time, which is 9-1/2 hours head of Eastern Time:
Afghans vent fury over Koran burning, U.S. apologizes

By Samar Zwak
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Michael Georgy and Rob Taylor; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mohammad Zargham)

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. helicopters fired flares to disperse hundreds of angry Afghans who massed outside the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday after hearing staff there had burned copies of the Koran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued an apology for "inappropriate treatment" of Islam's holy book at the base to try to contain fury over the incident - a public relations disaster for Washington as it tries to pacify the country ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014.

White House spokesman Jay Carney later echoed his remarks, telling a briefing, "We apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms."

Protesters started to gather after Afghan laborers found charred remains of copies of the Koran as they collected rubbish from Bagram air base, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.

As many as 2,000 Afghans massed outside several gates to the base, the main centre for NATO-led forces just north of the capital Kabul, chanting anti-foreigner slogans and throwing stones, said Reuters reporters at the scene.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban in Afghanistan condemned the incident, both of them saying the values of Islam had been "degraded".

Winning the hearts and minds of Afghans is critical to U.S. efforts to defeating the Taliban, but critics say Western forces often fail to grasp Afghanistan's religious and cultural sensitivities.

A senior U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said staff at Bagram had decided to remove "extremist literature" and other materials left in a library in the base's detention block.

"They (the materials) were taken out of the library for good reason but they were being disposed of in a bad way," the official said.

"There was a breakdown in judgment in this matter but there was no breakdown in our respect for Islam," the official added.

NATO ORDER

In a statement issued by the Pentagon, Panetta said NATO had ordered an investigation into the "deeply unfortunate" incident.

NATO's top general in Afghanistan, General John Allen, apologized for "actions" at the base and said a new order had been given to all coalition forces in Afghanistan to take part in training in the proper handling of religious materials.

"This was not intentional in any way," said Allen, the head of Afghanistan's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"I offer my sincere apologies for any offence this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan," he added.

The apologies did little to ease the anger.

"We want them out of our country now," said Zmari, 30, a protester who has a shop near Bagram.

"We Afghans don't want these Christians and infidels, they are the enemy of our soil, our honor and our Koran," said Haji Shirin, one of the protesters at the heavily fortified compound, which is home to 30,000 foreign troops and civilians.

"I urge all Muslims to sacrifice themselves in order to pull out these troops from this soil."

President Karzai's office condemned the incident and said the president had appointed a delegation of senior clerics to investigate how it occurred.
[...]
From that last it's unlikely Karzai's investigation represents the cutting edge in forensic evidence gathering and analysis. That would be most unfortunate given that a Koran burning is a blasphemy in Afghanistan and that penalties for blasphemy are among the harshest in the world and can include execution by hanging. I'll assume that U.S. troops would have immunity from such prosecution and penalty but I can see how Afghans who approve of their blasphemy law wouldn't agree to an exception in this case.

The fourth report, from the Christian Science Monitor, published February 22, nails down that the Pentagon has launched an investigation, although it's still unclear to me whether the investigation is independent of the one at NATO. I have heard at least one report subsequent to publication of the CSM report that calls into question whether NATO had actually confirmed that the Korans in question were from Parwan prison at Bagram, but the CSM report, which contains direct quotes, is so detailed on the point that I'll accept its version.

Again, I'm excerpting only the passages I find relevant to the other reports I quoted:
Quran burning: Were prisoners hiding extremist messages in books?

The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the Quran burning at a US detention facility in Afghanistan. Prisoners might have used the books to pass secret messages, a spokesman says.

By Anna Mulrine, Staff writer
February 22, 2012

The US military is now investigating whether American military officials ordered Qurans to be destroyed because prisoners at a US detention facility were passing extremist messages in them, an International Security Assistance Force spokesman said Wednesday.

“We haven’t got any proof of that yet, and that is a vital part of the investigation that is ongoing,” Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson said in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.

Indeed, the entire library of the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram Air Base, one of the largest US military facilities in Afghanistan, may have been ordered destroyed because of the extremist messages contained in texts, he added.

“It was a considerable amount of material,” General Jacobson said, though he added that he “cannot say” if it was the “entire” library.
[...]
Afghan night shift workers at Bagram attempted to stop the burning of the Qurans, showed the books to their day shift colleagues, and brought the Qurans off-base.

“That is when material left the facility,” Jacobson said.

In addition to extremist messages written on Qurans, prisoners at the US detention facility may have been circulating leaflets “that held inflammatory material,” Jacobsen said.

The question remains, he adds, “How did Qurans come into this material that was then taken into the burn pit?”

The investigation will also look into whether NATO officials exercised “misjudgment,” or knowingly gave the order to destroy Qurans. “Who basically told soldiers to take it and dispose of it in an improper way?” Jacobson said.
[...]

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Monday, February 27

"Afghanistan surges as still America's number one hot spot, overshadowing Syria and Iran"

The above observation from retired Indian career diplomat M K Bhadrakumar, writing for the Feb. 28 edition of Asia Times Online about Kabul on razor's edge. Yuppers, that it is. My favorite line from his analysis: "Obama was wrong to have left Afghanistan to the State Department and the late Richard Holbrooke's cronies to handle."

Thanks for letting us know LOL

Oh gosh. [wiping away tears of laughter] Now where are we in space and time? From today's Washington Post: Suicide attack outside NATO base kills 9 Afghans in fresh reprisals to Koran burnings.

Here's my favorite headline from this weekend, from Fox News Cable: After riots give way to murder, US restates commitment to Afghanistan

Gee, maybe the patient ones among the Afghans are finally learning from the Pakistanis: Screw being patient. Act out, and get the attention of the US news media. Why, CNN even took time from its saturation coverage of the downtrodden Syrians to interview Ryan Crocker about the crisis in Afghanistan. What next? A whole 30 seconds of news from Afghanistan every night on the telly? I'm not sure I could stand the shock.

Can Ryan Crocker pull a rabbit out of the hat? If he can find where President Obama hid the bunny, maybe. We'll just have to stay tuned. And please don't miss my Sunday essay, Not Since Mazar-i-Sharif, or why the story of the Koran burning incident at Bagram Airfield is improbable. I worked really hard on it, in between plowing through 204 reports on Afghanistan LOL don't mind me; I'm giddy from lack of sleep. Over and out.

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Afghan War: all eyes on the secret cable

Secret U.S. cable warned about Pakistani havens. That information about the cable was leaked suggests a bare-knuckle brawl underway in Washington ....
[...] The cable, which was described by several officials familiar with its contents, could be used as ammunition by senior military officials who favor more aggressive action by the United States against the Haqqani havens in Pakistan. It also could buttress calls from senior military officials for a more gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as the 2014 deadline for ending combat operations approaches.

These military officials have maintained for months that the strategy of targeting raids against Taliban leadership and building local Afghan governance is showing impressive results. But they warn that worsening conditions in Pakistan and the ability of insurgent groups to find haven there necessitates a larger American force than many in the Obama administration are advocating.
[...]

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Sunday, February 26

The real story on the Syrian situation

John Batchelor has it. Anyone who writes to say this isn't the story I'm getting from the BBC, PBS, CNN, FNC, Washington Post and New York Times, I'd reply go to sleep; you're up past your bedtime.

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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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Saturday, February 25

Koran burning riots, Day 5: Two US officers murdered at Afghan ministry; Allen recalls all Nato staff from ministries

Qur'an burning protests: Nato recalls staff after two officers are shot dead
Damien Pearse and agencies
February 25, 2012, 8:53 AM EST
The Guardian

Two American officers are killed at Afghanistan interior ministry as death toll in riots reaches at least 28

Nato has recalled all staff from government ministries in Afghanistan after two officers were shot dead in Kabul amid riots over the burning of Qur'ans at a US military base.

Two Americans – believed to be a major and a colonel – were killed at the heavily guarded interior ministry in the capital, where they worked.

General John Allen, the commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan, said he was recalling Nato personnel from the ministries in the capital Kabul "for obvious force protection reasons".

He said Nato was investigating the latest shooting and would pursue all leads to find the person responsible.

"The perpetrator of this attack is a coward whose actions will not go unanswered," the general added.

The shootings came as the death toll in anti-western riots across the east of Afghanistan rose to at least 28.

A spokeswoman for Nato's International Security Assistance Force confirmed two of its servicemen had been shot dead but declined to say if the killer was a member of the Afghan military or police.

Afghanistan's Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the shootings, which it said were in retaliation for the desecration of the Qur'ans at Bagram airfield, north of Kabul.

In a statement, the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the gunman was an insurgent named Abdul Rahman. He said that an accomplice in the ministry helped the gunman to get inside the compound.

The interior ministry is responsible for Afghanistan's police and security forces.

Early reports suggested that the two officers were shot in the ministry's command and control centre.

The British embassy in Kabul has withdrawn civilian mentors and advisers from the 20 government ministries and other institutions in the city as a temporary measure, the Foreign Office said on Saturday.

Elsewhere, protesters threw rocks at police, government buildings and a UN office following news that Qur'ans had been thrown into a fire pit used to burn rubbish at the Bagram base.

Four Afghans were killed in Kunduz province on Saturday and three in Logar, police said.

The US president, Barack Obama, said the burning was a terrible mistake, but the incident has sent thousands into the streets in this deeply religious country.

Hundreds of demonstrators staged peaceful protests in Nangarhar and Paktia provinces, but ones in Laghman, Kunduz and Logar provinces turned violent.

Laghman's police chief, Abdul Rahman Sarjang, said about 1,000 protesters threw stones at Afghan security forces, smashed windows of government buildings and tried to attack the governor's house in the provincial capital of Mehterlam. He said gunmen were among the protesters, but police did not fire their weapons into the crowd or the air because they did not want to incite the crowd further.

Mohammad Jawad, a university student who helped transport injured protesters to the hospital, said at least 20 people were wounded, mostly by bullets.

"Security forces opened fire on the crowd," he said.

In Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province in north-east Afghanistan, more than 1,000 people protested, throwing stones at government buildings and a UN office, said the police spokesman Sarwer Hussaini. Officers fired guns into the air to try to disperse the crowd, he said.

Dr Saad Mukhtar, the health department director in Kunduz, said a number of protesters had died and 50 were injured during the demonstration.

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Friday, February 24

Koran burning riots: Afghan security forces brace for Day 4 (UPDATED 2:15 PM)

UPDATE
Oh, fooey. The pix at Reuters showing a line of Afghan police in riot gear I linked to in the wee hours this morning has been replaced by a slide show of pix from the rioting. Of course Reuters would have kept updating the report and pix throughout the day; I just didn't think of that at the time I saw the pix of the Afghan police ready for the day's events. Oh well; the pix is probably still there somewhere. From the last Reuters update (1:47 PM ET), it looks as if the Kabul police did a pretty good job under the circumstances. Although the death tally for the day is 12, only two rioters were killed in Kabul -- and one of them, according to the police on the scene, was killed by armed rioters, who're taking refuge in shops after firing off their weapons. The police are unsure who shot the other rioter, but this is just why I'm not bothering with the pretense of referring to the unrest as 'protests.' The cats among the pigeons brought guns to the party. Okay; here's the Reuters link again' go there for the slide show and the latest rundown on major incidents across Afghanistan (and Pakistan) as the unrest happened on Day 4.
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BTW Kabul is 9 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Eastern U.S. time (EST). The picture of Afghan security forces in riot gear that accompanies this Reuters report (see below) has a strikingly modern look, even if the surroundings in the pix are a bit -- er, quaint. Bracing for large scale protests that include rioting in an urban setting is part of the shape of the modern world. Who would've thought 10 years ago that cities in Afghanistan would be in the thick of that world. An odd way to measure progress but a measure nonetheless.

So. Afghan security forces are getting a chance to test out their Western training in modern riot control techniques. Good luck, guys.

Afghanistan braces for fourth day of Koran protests
Reuters
Feb 24, 2012 2:48am EST

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan riot police and soldiers were on guard across Kabul and other cities in a bid to stop a fourth day of violent protests, with authorities worried about incendiary Friday mosque sermons over the burning of Korans at a NATO base.

Friday is a holy day and the official weekly holiday and large crowds were expected at major mosques in the capital, with police in armed pick-up trucks guarding surrounding streets and buildings.

"Although peaceful demonstrations are the right of people, we strongly urge our countrymen to fully avoid turning them into violent ones," said Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.

"Police are fully prepared to respond to situations," Sediqqi told Reuters.
[...]
In central Kabul, elite anti-riot officers in protective jackets and helmets secured intersections after complaints that security force numbers had been insufficient in protests so far that have left 11 people dead, including two American soldiers.

Troops and intelligence officials stood by in support, although most Westerners have been confined to their heavily fortified compounds, including at the sprawling U.S. embassy complex and other diplomatic missions.

The embassy in a message on the microblogging site Twitter urged U.S. citizens to "please be safe out there" and expanded movement restrictions to relatively peaceful northern provinces, where large demonstrations also occurred on Thursday, including the attempted storming of a Norwegian military base.

Demonstrations in the last three days drew thousands of angry Afghans to the streets, chanting "Death to America!," smashing shops and windows.

A large protest has already been planned for the eastern city of Jalalabad, where violent demonstrations have taken place in the last few days.

The Taliban urged Afghan security forces to "turn their guns on the foreign infidel invaders" and repeatedly urged Afghans to kill, beat and capture NATO soldiers.

(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Afghan Koran burnings: Aw, put a sock in it, Newt

I'm writing this post in the attempt to correct the wrong impression that Newt Gingrich's criticism of President Obama's apology regarding the Afghan Koran burnings has sowed in the American and international news media:

The reason Obama had to issue an apology, and a hasty one, is that the Nato command announced that it would have the findings of the investigation into the Koran burning incident ready by Thursday -- that being yesterday. Yesterday being the day before Friday prayers at the mosques in Afghanistan. So all of Afghanistan was waiting on Thursday for the Nato announcement about the findings of the investigation, which didn't materialize.

With no findings forthcoming on Thursday, and with only hours to attempt to avert a bloodbath, President Karzai needed something, anything, that might take the edge off the anger of Afghans prior to the Friday prayer meets. Thus, a rare apology from an American president.

So this isn't the kind of situation that led to Nato's knee-jerk apology to Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the November 2011 cross-border shooting of Pakistani soldiers before Nato and the American command even had a chance to investigate the incident to learn what had happened.

Obama's decision in this case was in the manner of a triage decision, made in the attempt to save American civilians working in Afghanistan under minimal security, as well as the lives of other foreign nationals there, as well as Afghan lives, from mob rampages.

Newt's public statements about the Koran burning incident also make clear something else he didn't understand: he didn't take into account the Nato investigation, which was launched only three days ago. The Koran incident is complex and in several ways mysterious. Just one of the many questions that need to be answered is whether the prison at Bagram had been disposing of worn or otherwise unusable Islamic-related materials for years, and without burning them. If that's the case, just exactly how did such materials end up in a burn pit on one occasion?

In short, it needs to be ruled out whether an act of sabotage had been committed against the American and/or Nato command in Afghanistan or against the Afghan government in an attempt to further destabilize Karzai's regime.

The Nato spokesman who announced the investigation on Wednesday made an oblique reference to the above angle when he listed in a televised appearance the surprisingly large number of factors that the investigators had to examine.

Just one item on the list involved going up and down the entire chain of command to learn exactly who decided what in relation to the books at the prison.

So he was talking about casting a wide net. I wondered at the time I heard him speak how such a thorough investigation could be completed by the next day. Perhaps he also wondered. It could be that the announcement of a Thursday deadline was another example of Nato's infamous communication breakdowns during the Afghan expedition, which have often found one hand not knowing what the other is doing.

And it could be the same with Nato hastily terming the incident an "accident" and a "mistake" -- perhaps a politically correct statement in the effort to placate public opinion in Afghanistan. If so, the attempt placated no one.

In any event, the seriousness of the Koran burning incident warrants a very detailed forensic investigation, which can take considerable time -- time being the thing the Karzai regime is fresh out of, as it's watched the clock approach Friday prayers.

I do appreciate Newt's outrage, if the families of the two American soldiers have not yet received an apology from Karzai. And yet doing the 'right' thing in the face of an approaching lynch mob is often not the top priority.

The top priority at this time is to prevent more deaths and disperse the mobs, several of which are being incited and directed by Taliban operatives and other anti-American factions. This effort is particularly critical so that the rioting doesn't spread to other countries.

In short, President Obama and his advisors at the State Department are trying to stop a runaway freight train; his apology has to be seen in that light.

Several Afghans have been killed and wounded in the rioting during the past three days. So when calm has been restored, when cool heads in Afghanistan (and there are many such) have prevailed, then will be the time for a formal public apology from Karzai to the families of the slain Americans, and perhaps even a memorial service for all those killed during the rioting including the American soldiers.

Finally, Newt Gingrich's knee-jerk criticism of Barack Obama's apology is part and parcel of the American domestic political scene, and understood by the most informed Americans as such. But American domestic political jousting has no place in high-stakes U.S. diplomatic and security initiatives -- and they're all high stakes initiatives during a time of war.

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Thursday, February 23

Afghan Koran burning riots, Day 3: New York Times report

Ms. Aziz, along with many educated Afghans, some of whom registered their views on Facebook, said she was dismayed by the exploitation of the [Koran burning] incident for political gain and accused Iran and Pakistan of behind-the-scenes manipulation. Both countries would like to see the American military under pressure, and the reaction to the Koran burning has accomplished that.

Mohammed Salih Suljoqi, a lawmaker from Herat, said the episode “has been used as a tool of propaganda.”

“The noble and pure emotions of our fellow countrymen are being misused by the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries,” he said, adding that some groups “are trying to destabilize the situation and lead the country into chaos.”

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I want take this opportunity to give a shout out and prayer for Alissa J. Rubin and all the Times reporters and their Afghan colleagues who routinely risk their lives to report on crucial situations. And my prayers to the families of the two American soldiers who were murdered because of the Koran burning situation.

I was troubled to learn from the following Times report that Nato has not completed its investigation of the burning of the Korans. They'd led the public to believe the investigation would be complete and the findings announced by Thursday -- a hastily set deadline that's now backfiring. The original idea was that the report would be available before Friday's mosque prayers in Afghanistan.

Now Friday's rioting will dwarf what's happened so far if Afghan forces don't find some way to get a handle on the situation.

Obama sends apology as Afghan Koran riots spread for third day
Alissa J. Rubin
February 23-24, 2012
The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel this week became chillingly clear on Thursday as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers, while a crowd nearby protested the desecration of the Muslim holy book.

In the third successive day of deadly violence over the Koran burning, seven Afghans were killed in three provinces on Thursday and many more were injured, most in skirmishes with Afghan security forces. The Afghan government, which had responded slowly on the first day of protests, was in high gear on Thursday as officials tried to tamp down emotions ahead of the Friday day of prayer. Western and Afghan authorities feared that there could be emotional demonstrations after the prayer that the Taliban and extremist elements would try to exploit.

Afghan officials quoted from a letter from President Obama in which he, among other things, apologized for the Koran burning. For President Hamid Karzai, the episode has fast become a political thicket. He and other government officials share with the Afghan populace a visceral disgust for the way American soldiers treated the holy book, but they recognize that violent protests could draw lethal responses from the police or soldiers, setting off a cycle of violence.

Complicating matters is that some of Mr. Karzai’s allies in Parliament and elsewhere, including former mujahedeen leaders, have openly encouraged people to take to the streets and attack NATO forces. Mr. Karzai has not spoken out against them publicly, but his government’s overall message on Thursday suggested that he did not want more violence.

Mr. Karzai met with members of both houses of Parliament at the presidential palace and urged them to help to try to contain the protests.

“The president said that ‘according to our investigation we have found that American soldiers mistakenly insulted the Koran and we will accept their apology,’ ” said Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from Kunduz who attended the meeting.

“He said, ‘Whoever did this should be punished, and they should avoid its repetition. Insulting holy books and religion is not acceptable at all.’ ”

Mr. Aziz, who said she wept when told of the Koran burning, also said Mr. Karzai told Parliament members that the protesters’ violent response was “‘not proper.’ ”

Ms. Aziz, along with many educated Afghans, some of whom registered their views on Facebook, said she was dismayed by the exploitation of the incident for political gain and accused Iran and Pakistan of behind-the-scenes manipulation. Both countries would like to see the American military under pressure, and the reaction to the Koran burning has accomplished that.

The Taliban released two statements on Thursday: one urged Afghans to attack foreign troops and installations as well as Afghan forces who are defending them, and the second urged Afghan security forces to turn their guns on their NATO colleagues.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on all the youth present in the security apparatus of the Kabul regime to fulfill their religious and national duty,” the statement said, “to repent for their past sins and to record their names with gold in the history books of Islam and Afghanistan by turning their guns on the foreign infidel invaders instead of their own people.”

Mohammed Salih Suljoqi, a lawmaker from Herat, said the episode “has been used as a tool of propaganda.”

“The noble and pure emotions of our fellow countrymen are being misused by the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries,” he said, adding that some groups “are trying to destabilize the situation and lead the country into chaos.”

“All these tragic incidents can spread a dark shadow and negatively impact the relationship of Afghanistan and the United States,” Mr. Suljoqi said.

President Karzai’s office quoted from what it called a letter of apology from Mr. Obama that was delivered Thursday by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to signal to the Afghan public that the United States understood the distress the episode had caused.

In the letter, according to Mr. Karzai’s press office, Mr. Obama wrote: “I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident. I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.” Mr. Obama’s office would not release the text of what it called a three-page letter on a “host of issues” between the two countries, “several sentences of which relate to this issue.”

One of the Republican candidates for president, Newt Gingrich, issued a statement that lambasted Mr. Obama for his apology, calling it an “outrage.”

“It is Hamid Karzai who owes the American people an apology, not the other way around,” the statement said.

Five Afghans were killed in confrontations with the police, four in Oruzgan Province and one in Baghlan Province. In Nangarhar Province, two Afghans who were protesting the Koran burning, were shot to death outside an American base in Khogyani District, according to Mujib Rahman, the doctor on duty at the hospital in the district center.

It was unclear whether they were shot by Afghan soldiers or NATO troops, but a NATO spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. James Williams, said that NATO troops would shoot only if they were in mortal danger, and that they were not in mortal danger from the protesters.

About the same time as the protest and the shootings outside the base, an Afghan Army soldier turned his gun on NATO soldiers at the base, according to other protesters and elders. Two American soldiers were killed.Mr. Karzai and his team of religious leaders and elders whom he had assigned to investigate how the Koran burning came about, released a statement calling for restraint by the Afghan people and demanding that those responsible be tried swiftly.

“In view of the particular security situation in the country, we call on all our Muslim citizens of Afghanistan to exercise self-restraint and extra vigilance in dealing with the issue and avoid resorting to protests and demonstrations,” that could be used by extremist groups to incite violence, the statement said, adding that NATO officials had “agreed that the perpetrators of the crime be brought to justice as soon as possible” in an open trial.

A NATO spokesman said he could not comment; a NATO inquiry into the burning continues.

Reporting was contributed by Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul, and an employee of The New York Times from Nangarhar Province.

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Koran burning at Bagram: Um, is some government trying to sabotage Obama's plans for US combat operations in Afghanistan beyond 2014?

UPDATE
See my February 26 post, Not Since Mazar-i-Sharif, or why the story of the Koran burning incident at Bagram Airfield is improbable

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I might regret publishing my thoughts on this matter but my intuition seems to have been running my show for more than 24 hours. I just hope it doesn't leave me with egg on my face because I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories; over the years on this blog I've done my share to quash false news stories and rumor-mongering.

Besides, I've already taken one flyer this month by guessing that someone in the German Nato command had leaked a secret Nato report (The State of the Taliban) to the press. Then I learned that the only two press outlets that had seen the report were British. That doesn't rule out Germany and it doesn't necessarily mean someone in the British command leaked the report; he could have showed it to MI6 and said, 'Don't breathe a word of this to anyone.' (As to whether anyone in the Afghan government had seen the Nato report, dunno.)

But if I'm going to choose this month to make a fool of myself I might as well go the whole hog. To pick up from where I left off yesterday morning. You may recall I as much accused my brain of laziness because it balked at finishing an essay, which was written to answer the rest of B. Doran's questions and comments about the Afghan War. Doran's main point was that the United States should bail on the war, simply walk away -- a sentiment shared I think by many Americans. Even the editorial staff at Bloomberg asked on February 21 whether the USA should consider leaving Afghanistan much earlier than President Obama has mapped out.

My view is that the United States should stay in Afghanistan as long as possible but with a different policy toward Pakistan. But just before I could present my view, my brain suddenly wanted a blanket and a drink of water. Then after my business meeting it wanted to go outside and play. So it was too tired to finish the essay but not too tired to cavort in 62 degree weather. (It was a beautiful day yesterday in Washington.)

At 7:19 in the evening I finally walk into the house. I turn on the TV looking for news and there's Shepard Smith intoning, "The U.S. embassy in Kabul is on lockdown."

This is Fox News Cable we're talking about so I immediately seek verification from the wire services; I can't find it although McClatchy and Bloomberg had just broken reports that the embassy was taking precautions and had recalled staff. But even without a technical lockdown the news reports were grim. All hell had broken loose in Afghanistan earlier in the day, Afghan time.

What had started on Tuesday as protests outside Bagram air base about some copies of the Koran that had been found burned or charred at Bagram air base had by Wednesday exploded into galloping riots across Afghanistan. NATO and the U.S. government had been kept busy on Wednesday giving apologies to any Afghan official who would listen and promising a full investigation of the burning incident.

Of course the Afghan Taliban were having a field day with the story and doing whatever they could to help stoke outrage against the U.S. for what U.S. and NATO plaintively insisted was a mistake.

My first reaction was that the crisis couldn't have come at a worse time for the Obama administration. Obama and Hamid Karzai are just about to finalize a security partnership agreement. The sticking points are Nato night raids and whether the U.S. should transfer prisons it runs in Afghanistan to the Afghan government. And dang! that's where the burned copies of the Koran supposedly came from -- a U.S.-run prison at Bagram.

How did the Korans get in the position to be burned? The question is still under investigation but from Bloomberg's report (filed 7:39 PM ET February 22):
The Korans were damaged after soldiers culled them, with other books, from a library at a prison for alleged Taliban and allied Islamic militant fighters, ISAF said in a statement. The volumes were thrown into a pile of debris for burning and pulled out by Afghan employees at the base.
My second reaction was to cook shrimp and rice and watch Survivor. (I try to stay with fish and rice on Survivor nights; I always feel guilty eating steak while I watch half-starved contestants stagger through the challenges the show's sadistic game coordinators think up.) I'd had my fill of Afghan War news for the day.

But before turning in I checked on the internet for news from Pakistan, and saw the following report; it's undated but it must have been published within the past 24-48 hours; before then I think I would have seen it. The report is unconfirmed but if it's true it takes the prize as the strangest news of the month:
US presses Pakistan to allow bases near Iran: Report
Online News (Pakistan)

New Delhi: The United States is reportedly putting pressure on Pakistan to allow Washington to establish intelligence bases in the country’s Balochistan province to gather intelligence on Iran, Indian media reported on Wednesday.

According to a report published by The Times of India, the US Congress has been discussing a resolution to recognize the right of Baloch people to self-determination as a means of putting pressure on Islamabad to give in to the US demands.

The move elicited angry reactions from Pakistan’s top leaders including Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who described it as an attack on the country’s sovereignty. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, also said though the resolution was an isolated move by a few individuals, it “is contrary to the principles of the UN Charter and international law.”

The report said that three officials, two from the security agencies and one from diplomatic circles, confirmed that American diplomats and military leaders have been requesting for permission to allow their agents to operate near the Iranian border in Balochistan.
Now the Obama administration would hotly deny that it's playing the Balochistan independence card to pressure Islamabad about anything; in fact, Obama has distanced himself from the resolution, as has almost everyone in official Washington. Although I think in light of news from Reuters that his administration protested a little too much when it officially announced, in response to the Balochistan resolution flap, that the US respected Pakistan’s sovereignty. As to how much the US respects it, Reuters India reported this morning:
US pushed ahead with drone strikes despite Pakistani resistance
by Missy Ryan and Mark Hosenball
February 23, 2012 5:04am IST

Washington (Reuters): Shortly before the United States ended a two-month pause in missile strikes on militants in Pakistan last month, senior US officials telephoned their Pakistani counterparts and told them Washington would be resuming its covert drone program despite mounting objections in Islamabad.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among those who spoke with Pakistani officials shortly before the eight-week pause in the drone program ended, sources familiar with the issue said.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to his Pakistani counterpart General Ashfaq Kayani around the same time, the sources said, but a US defense official said the two men did not discuss drone strikes.

The strike that followed on 10 January, when US aircraft fired missiles at a home in the North Waziristan tribal area, was the first such attack since US aircraft, in a mishap that plunged bilateral ties into a tailspin, killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along remote border with Afghanistan.

The 26 November border incident infuriated a vulnerable government in Islamabad and prompted Pakistani officials to signal that they would no longer accept US drone strikes.
So if you've been wondering how it was that the drone strikes resumed even though Islamabad was still blocking NATO supply shipments to Afghanistan, now you know.

But there you have it; a strange claim hanging out there, like a hanging chad, that the U.S. wants to set up an Iran monitoring base in Balochistan.

So my last thought before I fell asleep was, 'What a strange month this has been.'

I awakened this morning with the same thought. I guess my intuition noticed that coincidences have been piling up since February 1, when it just so happened that the secret Nato report was leaked on the eve of an important meeting in Brussels about the Afghan War.

By the way have you ever read any of the statements that the British press pulled from that report? They're dynamite -- although after the leak the U.S., Nato and Pakistan tried to downplay the statements as merely anecdotal. Yes they are anecdotal but together the thousands of statements are the first exhaustively detailed compilation of claims that Pakistan's military/ISI controls the Taliban -- the same Taliban who've been killing Nato troops. And when that small mountain of claims is taken with all the evidence and intell that's surfaced since 2006 about the Pakistani military's ongoing involvement with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the implications are damning -- damning of Nato.

When was the Nato report made available to Nato commanders? January of this year, from a news report; it didn't give the day so I don't know whether that was before or after the assassination of four French troops on January 20 (or reported on that date), which provoked Nicolas Sarkozy to threaten to pull all French troops out of Afghanistan.

Allegedly the Afghan soldier who opened fire on the troops wasn't a Taliban operative; the claim was that he was a nutter who was simply angry about a video of U.S. soldiers urinating on corpses of alleged Taliban.

Whatever the truth of the matter on the heels of the fallout came the leaked Nato report, on the morning (U.K. time) of February 1.

By the afternoon of the same day, SecDef Leon Panetta had announced to reporters on a plane flight to the Brussels meeting that the U.S. was moving up by a year its plan to draw down U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan. The surprise announcement and the uproar that followed it took the media's mind off the leaked Nato report.

On February 3 a British military journal attempted to tamp down news reports that the British Nato command was now following the new U.S. plan. I don't have the link at my fingertips but paraphrasing the spokesperson said that the 'new' plan was actually one that the British command had intended to follow all along. Not true, commented a British newspaper (Daily Mail or Telegraph); it dug up a quote from an earlier date showing that the command had agreed at the time to stay with the 2014 drawdown timeframe.

In the days that followed, the media reported that the Obama administration was engaged in 'frantic' behind-the-scenes efforts to mend fences with Pakistan's government/military. I wonder how frantic the efforts were, if Obama restarted the drone strikes by informing the Pakistanis to suck it up if they had objections -- and, if that strange report is true, by telling Islamabad that he wanted to set up an Iran monitoring post in Balochistan, of all places. The report is strange because the province is engaged in a veritable insurgency against Islamabad, which is trying like heck to stay on the good side of Tehran.

Then, when Karzai balked over two points in the strategic partnership agreement (Nato night raids and Afghan control of U.S.-run prisons) a delegation from the U.S. Congress, led by Senator John McCain went to Afghanistan to talk turkey with him. That was on Sunday, February 19.

Let me see; what happened next? Oh yes -- on Tuesday, February 21, burned Korans were found at Bagram air base. Which placed the strategic pact in jeopardy, which brings us to today:
Taliban urge Afghans to kill "invaders" amid new Koran burning protests

By Mirwais Harooni
February 23, 2012 12:58pm IST

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban urged Afghans on Thursday to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation for burnings of copies of the Koran at NATO's main base in the country as a third day of violent protests began.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied across the country, some chanting "Death to America!", Reuters witnesses and officials said. In eastern Kabul, hundreds of youths threw rocks at police, who fired shots into the air to try disperse the crowds.

"Our brave people must target the military bases of invader forces, their military convoys and their invader bases," read an e-mailed Taliban statement released by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

"They have to kill them (Westerners), beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again."

The Koran burnings could make it even more difficult for U.S.-led NATO forces to win the hearts and minds of Afghans and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

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.

Large protests erupted in eastern Laghman province and the eastern city of Jalalabad, despite an appeal by President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday for calm after officials said six people were shot dead and dozens wounded in demonstrations.

Protests also kicked off in the relatively stable northern provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar on the border with Tajikistan, as well as nearby Baghlan province.

The fury could complicate efforts by U.S. and NATO forces to reach agreement on a strategic pact currently under consideration with the Afghan government that would allow a sharply reduced number of western troops in the country well beyond their combat exit deadline of end-2014.

Underscoring these concerns, hundreds of students in Jalalabad rejected any strategic pact with the United States, saying they would "take up jihad" if one were sealed.

The U.S. government and the American commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan apologised for "unintentional" burnings after Afghan labourers found charred copies of the Koran while collecting rubbish at the huge Bagram Airbase, about an hour's drive north of Kabul.
There were quite a number of other events in February relating to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nato that I haven't listed, such as the uproar that was set off when an Afghan ministry (I forget which one) plopped out with a plan to remove from the Afghan military any soldiers with family in Pakistan. This, in an effort to flummox soldiers who were working under orders from 'Taliban' (read, 'ISI'). This move is long overdue, if the army is to cut down on infiltrators.

As to what the NDS -- Afghanistan's version of MI5 -- is going to do to eject infiltrators, gee maybe rehire Amrullah Saleh and the team that walked out of NDS with him when he resigned? According to one analyst, the NDS is now rife with ISI spies and spies from other governments. I will find the link to the report but right now I'm beginning to worry that if I don't get this post out the door fast, my brain is going to start asking for a blankey and glass of water. I'm already hearing,'The radio is saying it's gonna be 70 degrees today.'

Okay; so what's on the burner today, besides a lot of hopping mad Afghans, and an expected announcement from Nato about the results of their investigation into the burned Korans? From the Express Tribune (Pakistan)
US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner confirmed that the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar on Thursday on the sidelines of the 2012 London Somalia Conference.

Speaking to reporters at the daily press briefing, Toner said that both leaders had many things to discuss. “Our goal remains to put this relationship back on track, you know, to try to put some of the problems that we have had in the relationship, some of the challenges behind us and move productively forward.”

In response to a story by Reuters on Afghan officials meeting with members of the Taliban in Quetta, Toner said that he did not have any information about these meetings.

When asked if President Karzai was taking an active role in response to being reportedly bypassed on earlier reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US, Toner denied it and said that the meetings between US Special Representative for Af-Pak Marc Grossman and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were an indication that the US was consulting with him.

He added that President Karzai was supportive of the process, and said that at some point the US would like to step away and “have it be an Afghan-to-Afghan reconciliation process.”

The State Department spokesperson was also asked about Secretary Clinton’s earlier statements about Pakistan taking action against certain groups present in Pakistan, to which he said, “We’ve been very clear about our red lines and, indeed, the Afghan government’s red lines for those Taliban who would participate in any reconciliation process.
[...]
Nice to know a little clarity is emerging, isn't it? This way we don't have to read 'deny deny deny' all the time. Maybe Khar will give Clinton a head's up on how the Pakistani Parliament is getting along with its review of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The results of the review were expected last week. (See update below for summary of the Clinton-Khar meeting.)

As to whether I really think my intuition has seized on anything -- if it has then I might owe my brain an apology if it wasn't being lazy yesterday, only trying to delay my publishing an opinion before I'd mulled over more facts.

Probably there is no conspiracy; probably it's a bunch of officials and brass going off in 20 different directions as they scramble to get out of the Afghan War yesterday. Just so long as they aren't scrambling to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan before it's ready to go.

*****************
UPDATE 1:15 PM ET
Associated Press via WSJ has a short report on the Clinton-Khar meeting in London:
LONDON—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Thursday for the resumption of a full range of formal contacts with Pakistan after its parliament completes a review of strained ties between the two countries.

At a meeting on the sidelines of an international conference on Somalia in London, Mrs. Clinton outlined to Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar a series of steps the U.S. would like to see once the review has been completed.

A senior U.S. official said those steps include visits by top American diplomats, including the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, along with a return to three-way talks between the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan declined a visit by Mr. Grossman earlier this year.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting, said the U.S. would respect the parliamentary review but wanted to prepare for a return to "structured conversations" once the review is complete. Mrs. Clinton, the official said, wanted "to get ready to get back into business with Pakistan." A vote on the review is expected in mid-March.

U.S.-Pakistan ties have been troubled for some time, mainly over alleged Pakistani support for Islamist extremists, but deteriorated badly in November when U.S. airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts, fueling an already pervasive anti-American sentiment throughout the country.

That incident sparked the parliamentary review, which is aimed at producing a new set of guidelines for the bilateral relationship that could pave the way for repairing relations.

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Wednesday, February 22

Note

I'm inching my way toward the end of the next Pundita essay to be published. I estimate another 15 to 30 minutes not counting proofing. But now as so often happens to me when the end is in sight, I need a break. Why does my brain do this? Why does it sit down so often just before crossing the finish line and say, 'Waaaaah. Me tired. Me can't take another step.'

Never mind; it's a rhetorical question. Anyhow, then I must take care of some business. Giving myself a cushion of a few hours I'll say ETA would be 4:00 PM ET. No, better still, make it 7:00 PM and I'll hope for 5. Until whenever,

Best regards to all,
Pundita

.

Sunday, February 19

U.S. military commanders, intelligence officials differ in interpretation of state of Afghan War

“Classically, intelligence is supposedly in the portion of the glass that's half empty, and operational commanders and policymakers, for that matter, are often in the portion of the glass that's half full. Probably the truth is somewhere at the water line."

U.S. intelligence officials offer grim words on Afghanistan
By Richard Leiby and Karen DeYoung
February 17, 2012
The Los Angles Times

WASHINGTON - Senior U.S. intelligence officials offered a bleak view of the war in Afghanistan in testimony to Congress on Thursday, an assessment they acknowledged was more pessimistic than that of the military commanders in charge.

“I would like to begin with current military operations in Afghanistan, where we assess that endemic corruption and persistent qualitative deficiencies in the army and police forces undermine efforts to extend effective governance and security,” Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at its annual worldwide threat hearing.

The Afghan army remains reliant on U.S. and international forces for logistics, intelligence and transport, he said. And “despite successful coalition targeting, the Taliban remains resilient and able to replace leadership losses while also competing to provide governance at the local level. From its Pakistani safe havens, the Taliban leadership remains confident of eventual victory.”

Burgess testified alongside James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who said that the Taliban lost ground in the last year, “but that was mainly in places where the International Security Assistance Forces, or ISAF, were concentrated, and Taliban senior leaders continued to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan.” Clapper was asked by committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) about reports in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere describing a recent National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan that questioned whether the Afghan government would survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.

The gloomy findings prompted a sharp one-page dissent by Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the commander of Western forces in the war, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. The comment was also signed by Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Adm. James Stavridis, supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Without going into the specifics of classified National Intelligence Estimates, I can certainly confirm that they took issue with the NIE on three counts, having to do with the assumptions that were made about force structure -- didn't feel that we gave sufficient weight to Pakistan and its impact as a safe haven, and generally felt that the NIE was pessimistic,” Clapper said.

Levin asked, “Pessimistic about that or about other matters as well?”

Clapper replied, “Just generally it was pessimistic” about the situation in Afghanistan and the prospects for a U.S. drawdown in 2014.

Clapper, who has served nearly half a century around U.S. intelligence, argued that it was only natural for intelligence analysts to see things differently than ground commanders in a war.

“If you'll forgive a little history, sir,” he said, “I served as an analyst briefer for Gen. [William] Westmoreland in Vietnam in 1966. I kind of lost my professional innocence a little bit then when I found out that operational commanders sometimes don't agree with their view of the success of their campaign as compared to and contrasted with that perspective displayed by intelligence.

"Fast-forward about 25 years or so and I served as the chief of Air Force intelligence during Desert Storm," he said. "Gen. Schwarzkopf protested long and loud all during the war and after the war about the accuracy of the intelligence. In fact, it didn't comport with his view.”

“Classically, intelligence is supposedly in the portion of the glass that's half empty, and operational commanders and policymakers, for that matter, are often in the portion of the glass that's half full," he said. "Probably the truth is somewhere at the water line. So I don't find it a bad thing. In fact, I think it's healthy that there is contrast between what the operational commanders believe and what the intelligence community assesses.”

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Wednesday, February 15

Reductio ad absurdum

"Pundita, [Re February 10 Pundita post, Amrullah Saleh on Afghanistan's neglected majority] please explain what majority [Amrullah] refers to, in terms other than a poll. I'm not an A'stan vet, I'm an Iraq vet, but I don't see any government or country worth mentioning. My counsel is GTFO ['Get the fuck out']; if we must return it is as Jackson not Wilson. Do I have it wrong?
B Doran"

B Doran:
I'm not clear on exactly what you mean by your question about Afghanistan's majority. So this might not be the kind of answer you're looking for, but for the record:

You don't have to take the word of pollsters to be assured that the majority of Afghans don't want Taliban to have a say in running the country. All you need do is note that the majority of Afghans insist that Pakistan controls the Afghan Taliban, and stack this against the persistent efforts of NATO and Pakistan's military to discredit the widely held belief. I can't recall offhand whether NATO spokesmen have ever specifically referred to the belief as 'paranoid' but they've consistently and clearly implied that's the case, as has Pakistan's military.

"The Afghans see us behind every rock," said one Pak brass -- or maybe he said "every tree," but the point is that Afghans do see Pakistanis behind every rock and tree. So whether or not these sightings are imaginary, the majority of Afghans believe that Pakistan has been using the Afghan Taliban to wreak mayhem on their country with the aim of controlling it.

Ergo, the majority of Afghans, to include the Afghan Pashtun, don't want the Taliban to have a say, if for no other reason than the belief that Afghan Taliban are Rawalpindi's puppets. NATO and its various member regimes should remember that, the next time they argue that most Pashtuns sympathize with the Taliban.

They should recall the same point whenever they field the argument that NATO can't win the war in Afghanistan because historically Afghans have never stop fighting foreign occupiers in their country. I'm not sure this view of Afghanistan's history is entirely correct. But following the logic of the argument, we're left to conclude that Afghans will never stop fighting Pakistan's occupation of their country, real or imagined as the case may be.

I think I completely understand the second part of your question, which I'll answer in the next post. I'll sign off by posing you a question. If Pakistan does indeed occupy Afghanistan via Taliban proxies, then who are the true insurgents?

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