Among those chanting “Long live Islam” and “Death to America” were some of the 5,000 Afghans who have worked inside the base for years. Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was quick to express contrition for the incident, which officials worried could incite violence across the country.
U.S. officials said the books were mistakenly sent with a pile of trash for disposal before several Afghans identified them. Although the initial protests were concentrated largely around the Bagram base, some of the charred Koran remains were sent promptly to Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai and other top Afghan officials will decide how to respond to the incident.
“These people must be punished,” said Qari Ghulam Mustafa, a top religious official from Parwan province, where Bagram is located. He carried a stack of 10 blackened Korans on his lap as he and others traveled to the capital in a white hatchback. He said nearly 100 more publications were damaged.
“If the Americans ever deny that they did this, we will show them these pages,” said Mullah Abdul Rahim Shah Agha, the head of the Parwan ulema council, or Muslim clerical body.
The apologies from Allen and top Obama administration officials were among the most profuse of the decade-long war. But there was no immediate indication that they would calm the kind of unrest that has turned explosive in the past, notably in April, when deadly protests broke out over a case of Koran-burning in Florida.
“When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them,” Allen said in a statement. “We are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you . . . I promise you . . . this was NOT intentional in any way.”
The United States faces an enormous challenge in withdrawing its troops over the next two years while attempting to protect hard-won gains and facilitate a delicate peace process between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents. With so little margin for error, the incident Tuesday could threaten the relationship on which U.S. military and diplomatic strategies depend.
U.S. and Afghan officials expressed concern about the prospect of more violent reaction in coming days.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned American citizens, “Past demonstrations in Afghanistan have escalated into violent attacks on Western targets of opportunity.”
The incident also could complicate relations between NATO forces and those Afghans who perform a variety of nonmilitary functions on bases. The hundreds of Bagram employees who were among the protesters will have to decide whether to leave their jobs or continue working while disguising their antipathy.