Violence Between Supposed Allies
President Obama told Americans this week that the violent reaction in response to burnt copies of the Quran at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is an example of the ongoing challenges facing that nation. The February 20 incident prompted mass riots and led to the deaths of dozens of Afghans and at least six U.S. soldiers in retaliation.
One of those Americans was from Central Texas. Nineteen-year-old Private First Class Payton Jones of Marble Falls was shot and killed last week on a joint U.S.-Afghan base by three Afghans who fired at him from a tower. This incident and others like it – when violence occurs between supposed allies – affect those on the home front, and the mission and mindset of troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan includes an effort to stabilize and strengthen the country’s national government and security forces. A small number of U.S. troops had been training Afghans to fight the Taliban. But since the Quran burning and subsequent attacks, according to Alan Kuperman, the U.S. has pulled troops out of those training missions.
“What do you do? If you don’t want to have a large U.S. troop presence and you don’t want to embed U.S. forces in Afghan forces in a training mission…then what do you have?” said Kuperman, who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Policy. “At this point, we have no strategy going forward unless we can rebuild that trust.”
Troops turning on their supposed allies is a horrible, dangerous, troubling situation, he said. It’s not unexpected in any civil war intervention, but Kuperman believes this danger is heightened in Afghanistan for a couple of reasons. One is that Afghans don’t like occupiers. They didn’t like it when England or Russia did it, and the same goes for the U.S.
Second, the Taliban will tell anyone who will listen that the U.S. is there to take away Islam – something Kuperman said most Afghans don’t believe at first.
“But when they see a burnt Quran or when they hear about a burnt Koran, then it says to them, ‘Well, maybe the Taliban in telling the truth. Maybe the Americans are against Islam. And maybe it’s our religious duty to fight against them and to kill them if we have the opportunity,’” Kuperman said.
Such distrust on the part of locals puts U.S. troops in a more unsettled and unsafe situation. This isn’t surprising to Marine Lance Corporal Travis Kiser, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was his mission in 2008 to help train members of the Afghan National Police – a job that some locals didn’t take seriously.
“The main reason a lot of them join [the police] is for money because it’s hard to find a well-paying job,” Kiser said. “Now, a lot of them will get their first paycheck and then run in the Afghan National Army.”
Those troops displayed little national pride, he said. They would protect their home town but harass people in neighboring regions. But not everyone acted that way. Kiser said he believes it’s just a small number of Afghan soldiers that have turned against the U.S. troops working with them. He said as hard as it is for survivors, the U.S. mission must be completed.
“Even though everything in your will wants to turn against these soldiers, to turn against the Afghan forces and say, ‘You broke our trust, we’re never going to trust you again, we’re going to completely stop,’” Kiser said. “That’s like taking one step forward and then 10 steps back.”
President Obama said this week that the violence directed at U.S. troops over the Quran burning is unacceptable. But Obama also said that he and Afghan President Karzai still want the same thing: for Afghans to take a greater role in running and protecting their country.