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
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.


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.


Carl said...

I have always thought that Osama was killed with the full knowledge and acquiesense (sic) of the Pak Army/ISI. We found out on our own where he was, sort of, presented them with the info and they said ok, but we want something. That something was Afghanistan. Obama wins and the Pak Army/ISI wins. Everybody who counts is happy.

Perhaps, if my speculation is true, that could be related to what is happening now.

Anonymous said...

"From that last it's unlikely Karzai's investigation represents the cutting edge in forensic evidence gathering and analysis."

OMG, I am howling here!

bdoran said...

A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Bapa Rao said...

Your theory that the Koran-burning was no "accident" is starting to make more and more sense in light of the latest (March 11)--alleged I suppose--massacre of Afghans by a US serviceman. This will, in effect, narrow down American options in that battle, and will hasten American exit with no backup stabilizing forces at all. Prima facie, it is a case of "well played, Pakistan" and putting the dunce cap on America's head.