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After Quran Burnings, U.S. To Review Afghan Mission


The deadly violence in Afghanistan over the burning of Qurans by the U.S. military has brought the American-led NATO mission to a crossroads. Among the dead have been four Americans, two of them by an Afghan policeman inside what was thought to be a highly secure government ministry building. The U.S. pulled all of its advisors from those ministries. The entire international community is on virtual lockdown.

American advisors must now assess how the NATO mission goes forward if they can't go out to meet the Afghans they're trying to help. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Before the conflagrations spurred by the desecration of the Quran, Afghanistan was in the midst of its coldest winter in memory. The vulnerable suffered most, in particular the half million people made homeless by Afghanistan's conflict. In several camps around Kabul, dozens of children froze to death. An outpouring of aid eventually reached them, and as with most disaster relief, USAID was the largest donor. The problem is, no one in the camps knows that.


LAWRENCE: Jabar Khan, a 28-year-old refugee from the fighting in southern Helmand Province, stands next to his coughing children in the muddy snow. He says he knows many Muslim charities donated food, winter fuel, and even some of the clothes he's bundled up in.

JABAR KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: If the Americans had donated, I suppose we would have seen them here in the camp, says Jabar. Another refugee has a sharper view, perhaps influenced by the news that the Quran was desecrated by American soldiers.

ABDULLAH KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: We've gotten nothing from the Americans, says Abdullah Khan, also from Helmand. He adds: The infidels should leave Afghanistan. We don't like them.

Chances are, both these men and their families have received U.S. donations. But with the anti-American climate in Afghanistan - even before the Quran burnings - USAID has been keeping its logo off the aid it gives because of the danger it might pose. Even for a refugee, it's not safe to bed down on a blanket with a big American insignia on it. After the killings of American servicemen deep inside the Afghan interior ministry, some are wondering if the same danger applies to NATO advisors.

RYAN CROCKER: Emotions are running high right now, and we understand that.

LAWRENCE: U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker says intense discussions are under way to get NATO advisors back to the Afghan ministries, even as the suspect in the killings at the interior ministry remains at large.

CROCKER: We and our allies are not going to send our advisors back without assurances that there are now steps in place to ensure that such an incident can't be repeated.

LAWRENCE: Crocker says there may also be some re-evaluation of the number of advisors. It's that sort of talk that has Afghans worried, like Sami Sadat, a former official at the interior ministry. He says he understands why the head of NATO forces, U.S. Marine General John Allen, pulled out the advisors. Sadat just hopes this isn't part of some speeding up of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

SAMI SADAT: There is a need for these advisors to help them, to coordinate efforts for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency all over Afghanistan. What General Allen did, if it's for force protection, good for him, but if it's a reactionary plan, then I would say that this is not going to hurt only Afghanistan, but it's also going to hurt the U.S. military's current mission.

LAWRENCE: On that point, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker is adamant - the American mission here has not been diverted by the violence of the last 10 days. Crocker admits that there are some dissenting voices coming from the U.S. media and the American presidential campaign. But he says the bottom line is unchanged.

CROCKER: The Afghans remember what happened when they did not have a strong international partner after the Soviet evacuation, and we need to remember what happened when we left Afghanistan to its own devices. Because, you know, they went through the vicious civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and that was the road to 9/11. 9/11 came out of this country because it basically was abandoned after the Soviet defeat. We do not want to make that mistake again.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.