Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement Feb. 23 condemning the Feb. 21 incident in which Korans were burned at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Mujahid urged all Afghans to target foreigners and their military bases as a warning against desecrating the Muslim holy book. Following the Feb. 21 incident, as expected, anti-U.S. protests flared up in various parts of Afghanistan. The incident and the Taliban's response have occurred within the context of U.S. attempts to reach a political accommodation in negotiations with the Taliban, even as the militant movement attempts to maintain its anti-U.S. credibility.
On Feb. 21, protesters armed with Molotov cocktails and stones protested outside Bagram Air Field, where foreign troops had burned copies of the Koran and other religious material. Reports of the Koran burning surfaced when some of the protesters said trash collectors had discovered burned copies of the Koran. U.S. helicopters released flares and U.S. soldiers guarding the base perimeter fired rubber bullets in attempts to disperse the protesters, who chanted anti-U.S. slogans and burned tires outside the base at a gate where protests regularly occur. Reports differ on the size of the protests, but the demonstrators were not able to cause significant damage to the base.
Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, confirmed the incident, issued a formal apology and ordered an investigation into the "improper disposal" of Islamic religious materials, including copies of the Koran. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized for the Feb. 21 incident as protests continued for a second day and spread to other parts of Parwan, Logar, Nangarhar and Kabul provinces. Eight people died and 21 were injured as a result of clashes between protesters and Afghan police, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was locked down.
The third day of protests included attacks on two foreign military bases, reportedly by hundreds of protesters. An attack on a Norwegian base in Faryab province left one Norwegian soldier injured, and protesters threw stones at a French base in Kapisa province. Western officials said an Afghan soldier fatally shot two U.S. soldiers amid protests in Nangarhar. NATO confirmed these deaths but did not confirm whether they were linked to the protests. U.S. President Barack Obama also sent a letter of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Feb. 23 stating that the United States would work to avoid a recurrence of such incidents.
Absent from the first two days of protests was any statement or action from the Afghan Taliban. Even on the third day, when the Taliban issued a statement in response to the Bagram incident, there was no threat of attacks. Urging Afghans to retaliate against the desecration of their sacred book is a very different response from the one that followed the leaked video of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. When the video surfaced Jan. 10, the Taliban's instant response via Mujahid was that such an incident would not affect larger negotiations with the United States and that it was not the first time the Taliban had seen such brutality. Low-level Taliban fighters in Helmand criticized the Taliban for downplaying the incident.
Given that the Feb. 21 incident involves the burning of a religious text, and given the prolonged public anger over the incident — not to mention widespread anti-U.S. sentiment built up over years of occupation — the Taliban have a clear interest in inserting themselves into the issue. But the Taliban also must strike a balance between maintaining their anti-U.S. credibility and reaching a political accommodation with the United States.
In any scenario where negotiations take place in the middle of an ongoing conflict, this sort of balancing act is necessary. Each side must reach an agreement with the other and sell that agreement to its respective constituency. Incidents like the Koran burning can be disruptive, but they also introduce additional strains on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and can give the Taliban new leverage.