Aftermath of Koran Burning Damages Afghan-NATO Relations
The Taliban is working to exploit the latest propaganda disaster to hit the United States military for its own tactical and strategic purposes.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
In keeping with its usual practice, the Taliban has attempted to link the latest violent incidents in Afghanistan to the most recent public relations disaster to befall international forces.
Despite the Taliban's tendency towards exaggeration and propaganda, many international media outlets have embraced the link and have portrayed the latest violence as a break from the norm.
The propaganda war in Afghanistan is keenly fought, and the United States has supplied the Taliban with a steady stream of public relations opportunities.
NATO in the Crossfire
The Taliban has attempted to link violent incidents in Afghanistan to the most recent public relations disaster to befall international forces: the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at Bagram airbase last week (see United States - Afghanistan: 22 February 2012: Koran Protests Escalate in Afghanistan). On 23 February—two days after public protests against the Koran burning had begun—the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan issued a statement. It said that the troops and convoys of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would be targeted as a result of the desecration, and called on Muslims worldwide to condemn the United States, both "practically and verbally". The same day a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform shot dead two US soldiers in the eastern province of Nangarhar, in an attack that some reports linked to the Koran protests.
Given that the Taliban was already targeting ISAF troops and convoys, the Taliban's statement marked no tactical alteration. What the statement did do, however, was invite observers to link all subsequent violence to the Koran-burning protests. On 25 February, two US officers serving in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry in Kabul were shot dead by an individual inside the heavily fortified building. The Taliban claimed credit for the shooting, but its description of the attack differed from ISAF's account: the militants claimed that three of their sleeper agents had shot and killed four senior US officers in revenge for the Koran-burning. They linked the attack to the statement two days' earlier.
A US military convoy enters the Afghan Interior Ministry
The gunman has not yet been apprehended, although he would have required security clearance to have accessed the room in which the Americans died, and as yet there is no firm evidence that the shootings were linked to the Koran protests or even to the Taliban. Such attacks are relatively commonplace in Afghanistan, and sometimes the Taliban's claims of responsibility appear to be opportunistic. In a similar incident in April 2011, a veteran Afghan pilot turned his gun on foreign personnel at Kabul airport, killing eight US servicemen and a contractor. This attack was claimed by the Taliban but it did not provide evidence to support this; the gunman's brother said he had no links to the Taliban and was loyal to the government, although he may have been suffering from depression (see Afghanistan: 28 April 2011: Afghanistan NATO Base Attack Claimed by Taliban). Nevertheless, in the context of the ongoing protests, the latest incident prompted ISAF to withdraw its personnel from Afghan ministries on the orders of commander General John R Allen. Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak offered his condolences and described the gunman or gunmen as "cowards".
Today, the Taliban linked a suicide car bomb attack in the eastern city of Jalalabad's military airport to the Koran protests. Reports indicated that nine people were killed and at least 12 injured when a suicide attacker rammed the gates of the airport, but ISAF denied that any of its personnel had been harmed.
Nangarhar, the province of which Jalalabad is the capital, is a centre of insurgent violence. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the attack was "revenge" against the soldiers who burned the Koran, but it may also have been the case that the attack was planned long in advance and was "re-branded" to fit the current propaganda circumstances. Zabiullah claimed that a failed poisoning attempt at the US Forward Operating Base Torkham near the Pakistani border was also retaliation for the Koran-burning incident.
Despite the Taliban's penchant for exaggeration and propaganda, many international media outlets have embraced the link between the Koran burning and the events above, and they have portrayed the latest violence as a break from the norm. This is certainly true of the Koran protests: Dozens have died in clashes between protesters and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) nationwide, and on 25 February, General Allen praised the ANSF for its efforts to quell the violence surrounding the demonstrations. Yesterday (February 26), Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai urged his countrymen to desist from violent protests and said he had asked for those US personnel responsible for the Koran burnings to be punished. US officials, including President Barack Obama, defence secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Allen himself have all apologised to the Afghan people on behalf of US forces.
Outlook and Implications
The propaganda war in Afghanistan is keenly fought, and the US has supplied the Taliban with a constant stream of public-relations opportunities in recent times. Over the past year the burning of a Koran in April 2011 in the US triggered nationwide civil unrest in which seven UN workers were killed in Mazar-e-Sharif (see Afghanistan: 4 April 2011: Civil Unrest Spreads in Afghanistan over Burning of Koran; Seven UN Workers killed). At around the same time, evidence emerged that a so-called "Kill Team" of US soldiers had been killing Afghan civilians for sport. In March and May 2011 the US apologised for misdirected air strikes in which a total of 18 civilians died (see Afghanistan: 3 March 2011: Top NATO Commander in Afghanistan Apologises for Civilian Casualties and Afghanistan: 31 May 2011: Afghan President Bars NATO from Air Strikes on Private Homes). Last month footage emerged of US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, again prompting US apologies (see United States - Afghanistan: 13 January 2012: US Condemns Taliban Corpse Desecration by Marines).
US apologies have become so frequent that they have lost their power to mollify infuriated Afghan protesters; the nationwide scope of the protests suggests anti-US sentiment has reached a new high. Additionally, the Taliban's propaganda campaign is designed to sow seeds of mistrust between ISAF advisers and their Afghan colleagues, and Allen's decision to withdraw his personnel from Kabul's ministries suggests that this mistrust is having a cumulative operational impact. Finally, the tendency of international media to link violence to Taliban propaganda victories arguably assists the Taliban's efforts to portray itself as able to mount a swift, deadly response to perceived insults, improving domestic and international perceptions of their military capabilities and sapping public support for continued engagement with ISAF contributors. The Taliban's own extensive record of civilian casualties and religious violations, including attacks during religious feasts and inside mosques, is much less well publicised, to the insurgents' advantage.
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