Karzai’s role in protests over Koran burning again reveals divide with U.S.

April 4, 2011

On the second day of last week’s deadly riots in Kandahar, around the same time that a gas canister exploded in a police booth set ablaze by protesters outside the governor’s office, Afghan President Hamid Karzai picked up the phone and called the mullah.

He told Maulvi Habibullah, a Kandahar imam and a leader of the protests, that 10 days earlier, he had condemned in the strongest terms the Rev. Terry Jones’s decision to burn a Koran in a small Florida church on March 20, according to Karzai’s aides.

The news surprised Habibullah — “Did you really do that, Mr. President?” he said, according to one aide — and the imam agreed to urge his followers to calm down. “After the call, things got better, and people went home,” the aide said. Habibullah could not be reached for comment.

In the presidential palace’s version of events, Karzai has been a concerned leader taking an active part in restoring order, amid four days of mob violence and clashes with the police that have left at least 21 people dead and about 150 wounded in cities across Afghanistan.

But many U.S. and other Western officials in Afghanistan say Karzai has played a more damaging role. They say that his initial statement condemning Jones four days after the March 20 Koran burning was provocative and that it informed many Afghans of an event that was not widely known and helped mobilize public anger toward the United States.

Throughout the crisis, Karzai has repeatedly pushed the issue, calling for Jones’s prosecution, even though the burning of holy books is not a crime in the United States, and for Congress to join in his condemnation.

As soon as Karzai issued his initial public condemnation, said one NATO official in Kabul, “you knew that this could really be bad.”

Afghan and Western sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive episode frankly. 

The episode has revealed again the divide between Karzai and the West, a gulf of mistrust and acrimony that poses a serious challenge to success in Afghanistan. Repeated public confrontations with him over issues of corruption, governance and the role of the foreign militaries have tested Western patience. In many ways, these difficult past few years have denied Karzai the benefit of the doubt among his Western partners.

“When I read his statements and accusations against Americans, it’s like an amazing sense of his willingness just to humiliate,” said one Western diplomat here. “It’s not that he would like to confront the issue in partnership but just to retaliate through humiliation, like someone owes him something.”

Afghan officials also have expressed frustration. They say that the U.S. response came late and has been insufficient and that this episode could have been prevented. “How can they talk about freedom of expression when it comes to burning the Koran?” one palace official said. “Afghanistan’s on the brink, and it’s about to explode.”

Some Western officials acknowledge that it was naive to think that a Koran burning in Florida could remain unnoticed. “We have missed an opportunity to really condemn the burning of Koran as soon as it happened,” the Western diplomat said. “We all thought, genuinely, that it would just go unnoticed. Karzai did notice.”

In their public statements, top U.S. and international officials here have placed the blame on Jones for the outrage that followed while simultaneously denouncing the violence that killed seven U.N. employees in northern Afghanistan on Friday and more Afghans there and in Kandahar.

When asked about Karzai’s role, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said: “I still believe, frankly, that the real person to be condemned is the one who actually burned the Koran, because he should know what is at stake.”

“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending cultures, religions, traditions of others, especially when he knows, and he has seen in the past, that when that touches Islam, they become so violent,” he said.

When Jones burned the Koran on March 20, the event made little news in the United States or abroad. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the act two days later, followed by Karzai on March 24. During Friday sermons eight days later, the wider Afghan public took up the issue, and the protests began.

“This is a very religious Islamic country, and the president is the leader of this Muslim country,” said Waheed Omer, a Karzai spokesman. “The president saw it as his moral and religious duty on behalf of the Afghan people to condemn this.

“People would have been informed anyway. This was something that would not have kept a low profile in a country like Afghanistan,” he said. “The president’s primary concern was not to prevent this information from getting to the people of Afghanistan.”

The demonstrations continued Monday in the eastern provinces of Nangahar and Laghman and included burning an effigy of Jones and throwing rocks at police. The protests were less violent than in previous days. In northwestern Faryab province, a man wearing an Afghan border police uniform fatally shot two NATO service members inside their compound before fleeing the scene. In a statement, Karzai condemned the killings and identified the victims as Americans.

Similar incidents have occurred before, further straining the partnership.

“This is a war between fundamentalists,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, reflecting on the ongoing turmoil. “And we are all the victims.”

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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