Troops on the U.S.'s largest base in Afghanistan have inadvertently burned Korans and other religious materials, triggering angry protests and fears of even larger demonstrations as news of the burning spreads.
The books were mistakenly thrown out with the trash at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul and were on a burn pile Monday night before Afghan laborers intervened around 11:00 p.m., according to NATO and Afghan officials.
The workers doused the flames with their jackets and mineral water before marching out of Bagram in a fury, carrying with them the charred remains, according to Sabir Safar, secretary of the provincial council of Parwan, the province where Bagram is located.
By the morning, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside of Bagram and on the outskirts of Kabul. Some shot into the air, some threw rocks at the Bagram gate, and others yelled, "Die, die foreigners." Many of them were the same people who work with foreign troops inside the base. At one point, apparently worried that the base would be stormed, guards at the base fired rubber bullets into the crowd, according to the military.
"They should leave Afghanistan rather than disrespecting our religion, our faith," Mohammad Hakim told the Associated Press outside of Bagram. "They have to leave and if next time they disrespect our religion, we will defend our holy Koran, religion and faith until the last drop of blood has left in our body."
There is perhaps no action that enrages Afghans more than foreigners' mistreating the Koran. It taps into widespread doubt of whether Americans respect Islam as well as deep frustration that, more than 10 years after the Taliban were overthrown, violence remains widespread. Korans are supposed to be buried or released into a flowing river if they need to be disposed.
NATO officials scrambled furiously to contain the fallout, tweeting and emailing reporters not long after the first protests began. Gen. John Allen, the commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, released a statement, then a video statement, then gave an interview to NATO television. In his and in all NATO officials' communication today, each emphasized that the burning was unintentional.
"Those materials were inadvertently given to troops for disposition and that disposition was to burn the materials. It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials," Allen told NATO TV. "It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake, it was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened."
Allen launched an investigation and promised to take steps that the same incident would not be repeated.
"This is not who we are. These are very, very isolated incidents," Allen said. "We've been dying alongside the Afghans for a long time because we believe in them, we believe in their country, we want to have every opportunity to give them a bright future."
In the morning, U.S. officials on Bagram escorted local Afghan elders to the site of the burning. Ahmad Zaki Zahed, the chief of the provincial council, said 60 to 70 books had been recovered from the fire, including Korans that were once used by detainees at the base.
"Some were all burned. Some were half-burned," Zahed told the Associated Press.
The protesters' fury was immediate, but Afghan officials eventually calmed them down by the afternoon. They demanded to see President Hamid Karzai and threatened to resume demonstrations.
Previous reports of Koran burning have led to deadly protests in Afghanistan. In April, 2011, after a fringe protester burned a Koran, a mob in a usually peaceful northern city stormed the United Nations compound and killed at least seven foreigners. In May, 2005, Afghan police killed at least four demonstrators angry over a report that an American interrogator in Guantanamo Bay prison flushed a Koran down a toilet.
While today's reaction was quick and furious, the protests might have been larger if it wasn't snowing and if it had happened at a different time. Many Afghans did not know about the burning because it occurred late last night and news is generally consumed during television newscasts in the evenings, at home. Many Afghans and Westerners fear that protests could get larger Wednesday and the rest of the week.
"Past demonstrations in Afghanistan have escalated into violent attacks on Western targets of opportunity," the U.S. embassy said in statement known as a Warden Message, sent to Americans living in Afghanistan. "U.S. citizens in Afghanistan should remain vigilant and avoid areas where Westerners congregate. Avoid large public gatherings or demonstrations. Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers, or in public."
Far to the south, in an area where a surge of U.S. troops has removed many Taliban safehavens, insurgents reminded the local population that they still held considerable sway.
In the Washer district of Helmand, insurgents beheaded four people they accused of spying for the U.S., according to the Helmand governor's spokesman. The Taliban denied any involvement in the executions, claiming they were carried out by Western intelligence officials to bring the Taliban a bad name.