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.”