If Afghans Want to Reject the U.S. and Embrace Theocracy, That's Their Right

Anti-American protests and violence, sparked by an accidental Koran-burning, suggest that Afghans see us as more occupiers than liberators.

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Afghans in Ghani Khail, protesting a recent Koran-burning by U.S. troops, hold up an effigy of Barack Obama, which they later burned / AP

There are 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, but it looks more and more like it's Afghanistan itself, as well as the Taliban, that's fighting them back. A week ago, two unthinking NATO troops drove some trash from an old library to an incinerator near Bagram Air Force Base. Among the trash were books, and among the books, a couple of nearby Afghan workers noticed after it was too late to save them, were Korans. Within hours, the incident became international news, and angry protesters began burning tires outside Bagram. Though senior NATO and U.S. officials immediately televised their profuse and apparently sincere apologies, the protests have become steadily more violent. Some Afghan police have turned on their Western sponsors. On Saturday, an Afghan employee of the Interior Ministry shot two U.S. officers inside the ministry's Kabul headquarters, then walked out unmolested. On Sunday, a protester threw a grenade at a group of American troops, injuring six.

The Taliban is trying to claim these protests and shooters as part of their own movement, and maybe someday they'll be able to, but the Taliban is still so unpopular in Afghanistan that there's probably no direct connection. And that's exactly what should make this violence so worrying. The U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, caught up in fighting the Taliban and its offshoots, may have made an enemy of the Afghan people themselves. President Obama is already planning to speed the U.S. withdrawal, but it might not be up to him anymore. If Afghans reject the international force then the most basic conceit of this decade-long war -- Westerners partnering with Afghans to rebuild their country -- will have collapsed, and the U.S.-led mission along with it. These angry young men rioting in the streets and murdering Americans aren't the Taliban, but they appear organized and passionate and numerous enough to take over once we leave, or at least to exert serious influence, and it's not hard to foresee the theocratic government they'd likely introduce.

That these Afghans have come out so quickly and violently against the Americans, and over such a minor incident, suggests they are angry about much more than just the Koran-burning itself. When the U.S. led the Taliban-toppling invasion almost 11 years ago, we may have started a war of liberation, but more Afghans seem to see it as a war of occupation. They're wrong -- NATO's goals are to make Afghans as free and secure as possible, and then to leave forever -- but that doesn't matter. The more that Afghans perceive us as occupiers, the more they will treat us as such, and the more we will have to assert our authority and force our agenda, thus making the Americans and Europeans into exactly the occupation force that nobody wants them to be.

Many Westerners seem to perceive these Afghans' violent response to a mere book-burning as backwards, even paleolithic. It's more complicated than that, of course: Afghans are reacting against centuries of invasion and oppression by non-Muslims, from the outwardly Christian British to the oppressively atheist Soviets, and may see this latest attack on Islam as another threat to Afghan national sovereignty by unwelcome outsiders. For many Afghans, the Koran-burning may be a reminder that even their most sacred national ideals -- in this case, the sanctity of their religion -- are outside Afghan control and in the hands of ignorant foreigners.

Maybe Afghans are angry for religious reasons, maybe for more nationalist causes, or simply because they're not crazy about having thousands of heavily armed foreigners stomping around their country and (they perceive) telling them what to do. But it doesn't really matter why they're angry. National self-determination -- a people's will to determine how their country is run -- is a force stronger than bombs or bullets or blast walls, as Arab leaders have learned in the past year, and as America may soon learn in Afghanistan. What Afghans want is more important than why they want it, and the past week of violence suggests that Afghans are rejecting the American-dominated foreign force.

For the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy to work, we need Afghans to work with us and against the Taliban. That requires Afghans to dislike the Taliban, which they do (the group's approval rating in Afghanistan has been dropping for years), but it also requires them to trust us, and they don't.

A recent poll by the Asia Foundation asked Afghans where they go for help with problems in their communities, such as land disputes, terrorism, broken infrastructure, or family issues. Only 2% said they approached "foreign forces" for help, making us by far the least attractive of 14 different options included in the survey. Though Afghanistan's institutions and agencies are deeply corrupt and often badly broken, from local officials and police right up to the national army and parliament, Afghans still trust them far more than they trust us. When the poll-takers asked Afghans to gauge their level of fear when doing eight of Afghanistan's most dangerous activities -- voting, protesting, running for office, traveling long distances, resolving a local problem, encountering Afghan police, encountering Afghan soldiers, and encountering "international forces" -- the last activity rated as the scariest, with 76% of Afghans saying they were afraid to encounter the foreign troops.

The international mission in Afghanistan has done some terrible things -- locking up innocent people without due process, accidentally bombing civilians, humiliating families by invading their homes -- but it's also pushed back the Taliban, built a weak but better-than-nothing system of police and army, funded a government that would have otherwise collapsed long ago, and provided extensive humanitarian aid. Afghans would almost certainly be better off embracing the foreign presence, working with the Americans and Europeans, rather than rejecting it. They would also probably be better off living in a tolerant society that did not respond to every Koran-burning with violence and murder. But that's not our choice to make, it's theirs. The Afghans have the right and the power to choose their own future, and it looks like their chosen future doesn't include us.