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Quran Burnings Complicate U.S. Role In Afghanistan


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is away. In what the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan, rebuild a nation with the participation of U.S. troops on the ground, a key thing is trust, the understanding that we are on the same side as the Afghans whose nation is meant to stand up again.

It has been more than a decade now, and it's also been a bad week. The U.S. military accidentally burned copies of the Quran. Violent protests and attacks broke out as a result, leaving more than two dozen people dead. And in retaliation, an alleged Afghan official shot two American military officers at close range inside the heavily guarded Interior Ministry.

The Pentagon insists the U.S. military is committed to its mission in the country, but the violent response from Afghans raises questions about the U.S. strategy to closely advise and train Afghan forces before the scheduled withdrawal of NATO troops.

In this hour, we would like to hear from those of you who have actually served in Afghanistan and ask: How do incidents like this, or how have they, complicated the job that needs to be done there and your job when you were there? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, Washington Post columnist Charles Lane on what the president really has to do with the price of gas. But first, joining us in Studio 3A is Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is a senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post, and he is also now working on a book about Afghanistan - you're in and out of there quite a bit. Nice to have you with us, Rajiv.


DONVAN: And about this past week and the incidents that have taken place, does this break the strategy in that it goes directly to the matter of the trust that seems to be critical between the two sides?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I don't think it breaks the strategy. I think what it does is it poses a very significant challenge for it. There's been - U.S. military officials and U.S. diplomats are under no illusions about the challenges of trying to partner with Afghan government officials, Afghan security forces in this effort to try to build their capacity to take charge of running their country and securing their country.

And this certainly is not, you know, the only incident by far of violence directed toward American forces and American personnel by Afghans wearing a uniform. There have been a number of significant such incidents over the past couple of years.

But, you know, this crystallized a degree of concern because it took place in a very fortified Ministry of Interior building in Kabul, not at some remote base off in the desert. And so it fueled a degree of concern, you know, if even at the ministry level, at the top level in Kabul in a supposedly secure facility, if an assassin could get in, an assassin working for the Afghan government, that raised a lot of concern, as well as...

And I think the biggest concern of late, both in Washington and at the NATO headquarters in Kabul, has been the response from the Afghan government. There's been widespread acknowledgement on the part of U.S. officials that the - it was a horrible mistake to have sent those Qurans to the burn pit at Bagram Air Field, and the apologies were made, and we all know that.

DONVAN: Are the apologies relevant, and are they accepted?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that's the issue. I think that the apologies have not, in the view of many U.S. officials, the apologies were not accepted, shall we say, accepted enough by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. And so the Afghan government response to this was seen as perhaps insufficient in terms of trying to tamp down the violence.

And that has created a real degree of concern, the partnership issues not so much at the ground level but at the top. Is Hamid Karzai really an effective partner? And that's fueled a new degree of concern.

DONVAN: Not a new question, though.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Not a new question by any stretch of the imagination, a question that Washington has been wrestling with for some years. But this has brought it into much starker relief.

DONVAN: Well, one other thing I want to ask you, following up on what you said, you said that the - what essentially was an assassination of two U.S. military officers sitting at their desks inside a heavily fortified Afghan ministry, somebody got through, and therefore that certainly raises the profile of this - these two particular murders.

But you said it's not the first time, which suggests that it's happened before and kind of not that infrequently. Do you have a sense of the numbers of times that Americans, or NATO personnel, have been targeted specifically by people who were in uniforms of the forces that we're supposed to be supporting? Is it in the dozens, at least?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I think certainly dozens of incidents and perhaps - certainly dozens of NATO personnel have been killed in these attacks over the past several years.

DONVAN: So is that seen as the cost of doing business when you're in a place that's not particularly pleasant and you're trying to do this job? Is that a price that needs to be paid, or is this indicative of a downward slide in trust to a critical point?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think it's indicative of the real challenge of trying to work in an environment like that. I think there are issues of insurgent infiltration, but there's also issues of just anger and resentment on the part of Afghan soldiers and other officials at times who might feel disrespected or slighted. And because everybody has guns, they resort to violence.

And in some cases, it just may be personal matters. It's a very grim environment to live in if you're an Afghan, and, you know, at least in a couple of cases that I'm aware of, the individual just snapped. It's - you know, the Taliban loves to claim credit for all of these, and in some cases, yes, there are Taliban infiltrators, but in other cases...

DONVAN: The freelance.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah, I mean, it's - you know, I don't want to minimize or belittle it in any way, but, you know, it is in some cases, I should underscore, it's a workplace shooting. It's guys who just go crazy and pick up a gun and shoot the guys they're working with.

DONVAN: Our number is 800-989-8255. We're particularly interested in hearing from you if you have served in Afghanistan. And we're dissecting the impact of this incident. And we want to ask you: In the past, have incidents like this complicated your job, given that your job there was to help build this nation, build trust, work with the Afghans, train them, train them to the point where they could take over their own security, and the rest of us could go home?

I want to bring in to the conversation now John Nagl, who is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. John, you wrote or was one of the writers of the manual that is used, the counterinsurgency manual, and this is very much a counterinsurgency project, as well as nation-building and again trust being part of it.

But John, what I'm picturing now are ministry buildings that were full of French, British and American troops until a few days ago who were working for months, day by day, with Afghan colleagues, trying to make something work. And they've now all been pulled out because it's seen as, at least temporarily, not a safe place to work.

Again, seeing corridors empty of our guys over there suggests to me that things are broken. Do you see them going back to work? Do you see this being put back together?

DR. JOHN NAGL: I do see them going back to work. I see this being put back together but with a little bit less of the trust that really is necessary for this project to work over the long term. And I think that some of that can be rebuilt over time but not all of it.

I do think it's worth pointing out that despite the riots that we've seen throughout Afghanistan, they've tapered off over the last several days, Afghan police in particular have stood in between the American bases and the Afghan crowds, and many more Afghan police have been killed in this fighting over the past week than the Americans who were so tragically lost at the hands of the Afghans.

So this is a complicated story. In particular, the ministry assassinations seemed on early analysis to have been a case of a Taliban infiltrator and not one of the sort of random, more passionate acts that Rajiv described that sometimes do happen inside these units where there is friction between ISAF soldiers, international soldiers, and the Afghan soldiers trying to come to terms with how they're going to take on this very dangerous, very difficult task.

DONVAN: In, as you just mentioned, the situations where Afghan police officers have died trying to control these crowds, are they dying because they're caught in a kind of surge of energy and crossfire, or are they seen by the crowds as collaborators with us?

NAGL: Some of both, and I think it's a very difficult position to be in for the Afghan police, who share with the Afghan population, grave concern and dismay over the fact that they've been host to American and international forces for more than a decade now, and we are still, 10 years in, making errors that are so basic and so grievous to the relationship.

DONVAN: Such as?

NAGL: Such as burning the Qurans. And they by and large can't believe that that would be unintentional. They have so much respect for the United States in particular, for our power, for what we're able to do...

DONVAN: That we're incapable of making mistakes, and therefore everything's on purpose.

NAGL: Exactly. They cannot believe that we could be this far into this relationship not doing that on purpose.

DONVAN: Before the break, I just want to bring up the fact that in this political season here, American voters are looking at this, and they're listening to the president apologize and going to Rajiv's point that an apology - apologies have been offered and not necessarily well-accepted. Meanwhile, back here, the president is coming in for a hard time by - from some quarters for having apologized at all.

Rajiv, is it relevant to the future of this thing, at this point, do you think, with the two-year window-frame before the troops are due to come home that the president is under pressure to get out faster? Do you think speed is likely to happen, the speeding-up of the process?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I certainly think this incident is fueling a discussion in some quarters of the government about the pace of the drawdown and whether that should be accelerated or not. You know, for the Republican Party, it puts them in a very awkward position because to criticize the president for apologizing, which is essentially what is a necessary step to try to diffuse the tensions, at the same time saying that you want to continue on with the mission, there's a contradiction there.

And perhaps Newt Gingrich and some other Republicans who have been critical of the president have a different view from others in the party about where, you know - how the conflict should proceed. But if the Republican Party position is that you need to keep on fighting there, you've got to make amends.

DONVAN: All right, we have callers who are waiting to talk with us about that. We've asked callers to call in if they've actually served in Afghanistan to tell us, in their experience, how these - how incidents like this complicate the job. Our number is 800-989-8255. You can also email us at talk@npr.org. We'll be back right after the break. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. NATO and Afghan officials are nearly done with their investigation into the circumstances that led to the accidental burning of several Qurans and other Islamic texts. The materials were confiscated because they contained handwritten extremist messages inside them, and military officials believe that detainees were using those to exchange messages.

Afghan workers saw the holy books in the garbage, which was burning, and tried to save them. As the news of that incident spread, violent protests broke out, and more than 30 people have died since then, including four U.S. soldiers.

If you have served in Afghanistan, we want to ask you if you've seen incidents like this blow up the situation, complicate your job. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Nagl is here with me, he is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He was part of the team that drafted the U.S. Army field manual on counterinsurgency. And we're also joined by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is a senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post. And we do have a listener who would like to join the conversation. Jesse(ph) is in Anchorage, Alaska. Jesse, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JESSE: Hey, how are you guys doing?

DONVAN: We're good, thank you.

JESSE: I just want to thank you guys for hitting this right on the head. Any little mistake that we make over there, the Afghan public just eats it up.

DONVAN: Have you been over yourself?

JESSE: Yeah, I was over there during the elections a couple years ago, and there was an issue in our region where some of the ballots were misprinted. And the population in that area - just giant backlash.

DONVAN: Interesting that you say that they're eating it up, as in they're almost waiting for these things to happen. And is that true, by and large?

JESSE: Oh yeah.

DONVAN: What's that about, in your opinion? And we'd love to hear your views, since you've been on the ground.

JESSE: Well, I think it's - there is - they hold us to a higher standard, and they do think that we are infallible. And when we do mess up or have some situation where we err, they just take it and run with it. And some of the extremist parties, I think they use it to their advantage to try and get people to follow their side instead of follow us or however, you know, it's playing out.

DONVAN: How did that all settle down in the work that you were doing? Did it impact what you were trying to do?

JESSE: Yeah, it made - it definitely made boots on the ground a little bit more dangerous. It was - you know, a lot of telling your buddies and everyone around you, hey, you need to mind your p's and q's, don't do this, do that. You know, it's proper etiquette in the area and just making sure everyone there is following it so that there is nothing else to exacerbate the situation.

DONVAN: I want to ask you about the apology question not because I'm interested in the political story back here, and I understand why that's a political story back here, I just want to talk about it from the pragmatic point of view. Do - you know, bouncing off what Rajiv had said is the sense that the apology isn't really well-accepted. Do you think that it becomes more dangerous for the troops in a situation like this if there is not even an attempt at an apology made?

If you're there, do you want that to come from Washington, or is it irrelevant?

JESSE: The apology yes because I do believe that it reaches some of the Afghan public. I do believe that some of them do respond to that very well. There are some that you're just not going to reach.

DONVAN: Rajiv?

CHANDRASEKARAN: We have to also remember that this incident has not occurred in a vacuum. We've been fighting there for more than a decade, and in that decade, there have been a lot of unfortunate incidents. There have been a lot of civilians who have been killed by errant bombings, by errant night raids.

Yes, top commanders in recent years have tried to reduce civilian casualties, and they've made marked strides in doing so. But the Afghan public, by and large, they're pretty burnt out on this. And they're also coming at this from decades of earlier conflict.

JESSE: Exactly.

CHANDRASEKARAN: But we've been there for a decade-plus, and so when they look at it, they're sort of, in my cases, done forgiving us. They've give us the benefit of the doubt for several years, and we keep saying we're going to reduce civilian casualties, yet every few months brings another incident of a couple of young boys or girls getting killed in an inadvertent airstrike or some - you know, somebody getting run over by a convoy.

And so this feed into it so that when they hear that now some Qurans have been burned, it becomes much harder for them to accept that this was simply an accident. They think: Look, you guys, you keep doing things like this. You should be smarter than that. And so they're willing to see a conspiracy.

DONVAN: I don't think that the rest of that know that about how we're perceived, that we're seen as so incapable of making a mistake that when bad things happen, it was always seen as purposeful. John Nagl?

NAGL: We call this the man-on-the-moon problem when we were fighting in Iraq. So a country that could put a man on the moon ought to be able, in the eyes of the Iraqi people, now in the eyes of the Afghan people, to deal with these fairly low-level insurgencies, to deal with this problem, to get the economy back going again, to get electricity flowing.

And so they had an exaggerated belief in our technological capabilities and in our ability to make their lives better, and if we were not doing it, they viewed that as a sign that we didn't want to.

DONVAN: Yeah, but what's the solution, tell them that we're not so good at things? I mean, we really don't want that to be the message, either.

NAGL: No, and it is, I think, an inevitable problem of foreign powers conducting counterinsurgency campaigns.

DONVAN: We have an email from Ben(ph), who writes: I served as an advisor in Afghanistan in 2008. My team developed a very close relationship with the Afghan police. When incidents like this took place, we found the solution was to get closer, not back away. We found we could sit, talk, explain and cooperate. We found our very dangerous work was safer when we were closer to the Afghans, working among the people and their Afghan forces. Hiding behind base walls or in armored vehicles made things worse?


CHANDRASEKARAN: I think that John and other counterinsurgency experts would make that very same argument, that you can build bigger walls and put thicker metal sheeting on your vehicles to try to prevent the roadside bomb from causing casualties, but the only way you're going to prevent that bomb from getting placed in the ground in the first place is to be out with the people building trust, convincing the people that there's a better alternative than supporting the insurgency.

The problem is, you know, when - you know, you can do that at the local level, when you're with a little advisory team. It becomes a much bigger issue when you look at this at a national level, and you say: Is the Afghan government, from on high, taking the necessary steps to really be faithful partners?

DONVAN: It's a big leap of faith, John Nagl. I mean, you did this work in Iraq. It's a big leap of faith to be the guy who goes out there because you may not be the one who comes back. And can you talk about - and in fact in talking about what Ben's email is about, there's a very, very - there's an art to this, it sounds like, making this communication and making this work, but it requires an enormous amount of risk and trust that you're going to not mess it up and that the guy on the other side isn't out to get you right away.

NAGL: And an awful lot of empathy. So you really have to find people who are willing to take these risks, to put their lives in the hands of their Afghan or their Iraqi brothers in arms and build the personal relationships on which any kind of more secure environment in the future is going to depend.

And it's worth putting this in the context of the broader American strategy, which is to draw down American forces and embed small American advisory teams inside Afghan army and police units and hand over primary responsibility to the Afghan forces.

For that to work, we have to have those kind of personal relationships. It's something that not everybody can do. It's enormously risky, and I think we all owe a great debt of thanks to those like the person who just emailed us, who have built those trust relationships across cultures.

DONVAN: Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing, a guy like that took a very big risk for the rest of us.

NAGL: And we have not done a good job as a military of rewarding those people.

DONVAN: Let me bring in Eric(ph) from Mesa, Arizona. Eric, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ERIC: Hi, good afternoon. I just wanted to make a - I served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm an Air Force, retired military intelligence officer. And I was in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib episode, for example. And one thing that has bothered me for a very long time: What would happen in the United States if somebody accidentally burned 100 Bibles?

There are cultural things that I don't think we train our people well enough for, and I don't think we hold people accountable in the military forces, sometimes, when these so-called mistakes happen. Where is the captain and the midgrade NCO that should have known better and should have supervised this? What happens to them, and what accountability do we have that we can show the Afghan people that we take these cultural issues seriously?

DONVAN: And James(ph) - I'm sorry, Eric, let me ask you: What would be accountability for you in this case, in the case of the Quran burning?

ERIC: Well, I mean, the obvious example is you could start by seriously examining court marshal offenses for things like cultural things that should not have happened. I mean, you know, we have rules about what you cannot do. You don't walk into a mosque with a weapon. Matter of fact, you generally stay out of mosques entirely.

So there are rules that are set up.

DONVAN: All right, John Nagl actually wrote some of the rules for this.

NAGL: And transcribed them from others who had done these same sort of fights before back to Lawrence of Arabia and beyond. The problem Eric describes is very real, and it was noted by no less a figure than Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who set up a program in the Pentagon called the Minerva Program to try to incorporate more cultural awareness and understanding of the very things that Eric is talking about to try to make sure that things like this don't happen. But - and we have come - we've come a long way.

ERIC: Yeah. I understand that things can happen, but at the same time, I think what the Afghan people are going to be looking for is accountability. And I think when we brush it under the rug and call it a mistake, that's not going to be satisfactory to the Afghans.

DONVAN: Do you think, for example - and I really don't want to be talking specifically about this case, what will happen specifically. But a case like this, could you see court martial for cultural offense, John Nagl?

NAGL: I can't. I would have to be convinced that they were doing it on purpose, even in a more egregious case, which we saw in Iraq when a Marine sniper used a Quran for target practice, clearly an active act of cultural defiance and despoiling of a cultural artifact. That, I think, is a court martialable offense. This one, I don't think is. And I again think that the president making the apology carries great weight in Afghanistan. We should not underestimate how many lives, Afghan and American, were saved by the president making that statement.

DONVAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, what this underscores is counterinsurgency is hard. It's really difficult, and difficult in terms of training all your forces to do this right, you know? Unfortunately, there are far too few John Nagls in the military. And, you know, we've heard from...

NAGL: That's not the majority opinion, by the way.

CHANDRASEKARAN: But we've heard from, you know, the guy who wrote the email, the caller. These guys get it, but, you know, I think we deluded ourselves into thinking that because the surge brought down violence in Baghdad through a counterinsurgency strategy that, all of a sudden, our military got it.

And I think by and - you know, there are a lot of smart soldiers, Marines, who are out there in Afghanistan doing counterinsurgency the way it's supposed to be done. But I think there are also a lot of guys out there - and women - who just don't quite get it.

DONVAN: Is it training?

CHANDRASEKARAN: It's training, it's practice and...

NAGL: And it's education as well.

DONVAN: Education once in the military or before the military?

NAGL: And before the military. So I do think that this is a problem...

DONVAN: So it's recruiting. It's recruitment, is what it sounds like.

NAGL: And it's all Americans understanding the need to treat all religions with some degree of basic respect that we expect of ours as well.

DONVAN: Let's bring in James from Hawaii. Hi, James. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JAMES: Hey, how are you doing this afternoon?

DONVAN: Good. Thank you.

JAMES: Good. I think in respect to what Eric was saying earlier, and with all due respect to his service, he's speaking from behind a desk as an officer. And what, I think, he's missing, what I think a lot of officers miss these days, is the fact that these fights are being conducted on the ground by kids, essentially.

And, you know, I went from being one of these kids in these gunfights in places like Ramadi in 2006 and in Sangin in 2008, 2009, to this most recent, you know, arena that we're fighting in in Afghanistan, where we transitioned from this assault to this sort of, like, partnership thing.

The fact is there's too many variables to try to develop any sort of textbook plays in these places. And you can't - there's no way to foresee what kind of problems you're going to encounter when things start getting...

DONVAN: Are you saying there's no rulebook that applies? Is that your point?

JAMES: I'm sorry?

DONVAN: You're saying there's really no manual that applies?

JAMES: There isn't. It's all, like, in-the-moment decision-making, you know, in every experience I've had. And, you know, as far as, like, dealing with someone that might be upset that a book was burned in a fire, Quran or whatever, that's going to be on a case-by-case basis. And I think what it really boils down to is do you know who you're working with? Do you understand what they have vested in you, and what they stand to lose if they decide to sever ties and maybe, you know, double-cross you?

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. John, you want to respond to what James is saying? He's basically saying the situation moves too fast. There are too many variables. Things are going to happen. It's hard to make rules...

NAGL: And James is certainly right that, in a firefight, you rely on instinct and on muscle memory, and we have training to help people in those situations. But in other cases that James - it sounds like James was a rifleman in the fight, in the mud. Somebody working in a prison, as was the case here, isn't under those kind of time pressures, has the ability to step back and think a little bit and decide that maybe instead of throwing the Qurans in the garbage, perhaps we could send them back to Arizona for additional study and get them out of there and put them someplace safe.

So I respect what James is saying from his position on the battlefield. And I think we're actually doing a pretty good job of training our riflemen what to do and the laws of land warfare and the rules of engagement. But I think that, in a lot of cases, people aren't under those kind of time pressures.

DONVAN: James, thanks very much for your call. Rajiv, where do you see this particular - I don't know if impasse is the word. But if this is a turning point, where do you see it turning us toward? What - how do we work our way out of this?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think that there will be - you know, there are investigations ongoing, and I think the results of that will be important and communicating that to the Afghan people. I think with some additional security measures, we'll start to see some of these advisers go back to work. But it's not going to be business as usual.

I think that, you know, there has been a breach of trust there at the upper levels, and that's going to have to be repaired. And that's going to take time, and I think that's going to impact how things play out. And I do think that this is going to have an outsized impact on thinking back here in Washington about the future of the mission.

DONVAN: You mean an overreaction when you say outsized impact?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I don't want to - that - I don't want to make that editorial comment. I think some people will say it's an overreaction. Some people will say it's a justified reaction. But I think it will have an - what I mean to say is that the killing of those two officers at the Ministry of Interior will have a much larger impact on the thinking of the future of the mission and the role of the partnership than, perhaps, the killing of other U.S. personnel at the hands of Afghan forces.

DONVAN: As it was intended to do by whoever pulled the trigger.


DONVAN: John Nagl, same question to you. Where do we go from here?

NAGL: I agree with Rajiv. I think we are going to see Americans back in the ministries within the next several weeks. I think we'll see different security procedures inside those buildings. I think you'll see more guards, probably more Americans in those buildings. I think the basic strategy is going to continue. We are going to continue to try to hand off responsibility to the Afghans as rapidly as we can. I think this will put more pressure on that strategy. There will be people trying to do it even more rapidly. That's going to demand spreading the Americans out thinner and taking even more risks.

DONVAN: All right. I want to thank John Nagl and Rajiv, pardon me, Chandrasekaran for joining us in this conversation about the moment in Afghanistan and its future. And I also want to thank, particularly, our callers and emailers. There is nothing that helps us as much as your first-hand experience and your service. Coming up, Charles Lane says political jabs and the price of gas don't mix. He'll explain after a quick break. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.