Jalalabad, Afghanistan —Violent protests against the foreign presence in Afghanistan continued on Monday as an apparent suicide car bomber took the lives of at least nine people. The attack on a military airport in Jalalabad (eastern Afghanistan) is the latest act of violence following the unintentional burning of several copies of the Koran at a NATO base last week.
According to the Interior Ministry, all the causalities in the airport were either civilians or Afghan soldiers who were guarding the gate. A spokeswoman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Jalalabad said the explosion did no damage inside the military airport.
In spite of repeated apologies for the Koran burnings from President Obama and military commanders, riots have raged across the country for the past week. Chants of “Death to America” have been commonplace at protests, along with a few demonstrators waving white Taliban flags.
This Islamic rage, however, does not extend to using the pages of the Koran as toilet paper  which then winds up discarded in the sewage drainage ditches in Lahore, Pakistan.
In an interview from Kabul, Ambassador Ryan Crocker told CNN’s State of the Union, “Tensions are running very high here. I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business. This is not the time to decide that we are done here. We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation that al Qaeda is not coming back.”
Since this wave of protests began, there have been 30 people killed and at least 200 wounded. That number includes two U.S. officers killed by an Afghan soldier. That attack at close range within the heavily fortified Interior Ministry in Kabul last Saturday has served to deepen the divide between many NATO and U.S. troops and their Afghan counterparts.
Since the White House announced its 2014 timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, pressure has been mounting to pull out even sooner. This is especially the case among U.S. allies in Europe where the war has always been decidedly unpopular.
American and other NATO troops work side by side with Afghan military and police who they now distrust. The Interior Ministry acknowledged one of its employees was a suspect in the shooting of the two U.S. officers. Abdul Saboor, a 25-year-old police intelligence officer, is a suspect in the shooting of and is now the subject of a manhunt by Afghan police.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President has urged for calm, although he also contends those who burned the Korans should be prosecuted. A common theme of the protestors is they want more than apologies.
Afghan defense and interior ministers were scheduled to meet in the United States this week but postponed their trip to confer with other Afghan leaders about how to protect ISAF troops and control the violence.
Under an agreement reached at an international conference in Lisbon in December 2010, the NATO force is set end its combat operations by the end of 2014, but there are signs that process may be accelerated.
To the surprise of many in Europe and Kabul, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently suggested the United States could end its combat role as early as next year. Since the U.S. contributes, by far, the most to NATO that announcement can only serve to hasten its departure.
There have been other incidents of reported desecration of the Koran in the past that sparked violence. What sets this recent wave apart is its intensity and duration. Seven foreign U.N. staff members were killed last April when protesters over-ran a base in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif after a pastor from a small church in the Florida deliberately burned a copy of the Koran.
As has been seen in other conflicts, timetables for withdrawal tend to serve as lightning rods for violence. The signals given by Washington during this recent round of violence may not be helping the matter. This administration is quick to apologize for inadvertent actions that destroyed a few holy books that had been used to pass coded, hidden messages back and forth amongst captured enemy combatants, but has yet to demand the same for the purposeful taking of American lives.