KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan soldiers and police say the recent burning of Qurans by U.S. personnel has seriously undermined their trust in their American counterparts, suggesting that the decade-long campaign to win hearts and minds has not only failed but also threatens the Obama administration's exit strategy.
"We are tired of the Americans here," said Mohammad Aziz, 20, a Kabul police officer. "We don't want them to stay because they keep insulting our religion."
The crisis of confidence has called into question the viability of the U.S.-led mission to have international soldiers and advisers train Afghan forces and hand security responsibilities to them before the end of 2014. The Afghans' abilities to safeguard their country against Taliban and other threats remain uncertain, and international trainers already have been forced to restrict their contact with Afghans after the violent backlash from the Quran incident.
"It has created a gap between us and the Americans," said Col. Rozi Khan of the Afghan army's commando brigade. "There is no trust between us."
Interviews with more than two dozen Afghan security personnel in recent weeks suggest that mistrust and hostility between the supposed allies has been simmering for years — but boiled over after Feb. 20, when American personnel burned Qurans and other religious materials at the U.S.-run Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
The incident sparked widespread fury in this conservative Muslim nation and led to public demonstrations and attacks on bases belonging to the U.S.-led coalition. At least 30 Afghans have been killed and more than 100 wounded in the unrest. A Pentagon investigation found five soldiers responsible, but it was unclear whether they would face disciplinary action. Afghan leaders have called for the perpetrators to be tried and punished.
The Quran burnings unleashed pent-up anger from many Afghan soldiers and police who perceive U.S. troops as insensitive to their culture and religion, indicating a relationship in which even relatively minor misunderstandings could cause serious problems. Coalition officials in Afghanistan ordered their forces to undergo additional training on the proper handling of Islamic religious materials.
Several Afghans interviewed voiced frustration at previous incidents of Americans desecrating the Quran. And while they didn't mention specific cases, the burning last year of a copy of the Muslim holy book by Florida pastor Terry Jones received wide attention in Afghanistan and sparked days of deadly protests nationwide.
"The Quran has been burned by the Americans on several occasions in the past," said Jamaluddin, a sergeant major interviewed in Kabul who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.
Six U.S. service members have been killed by their Afghan counterparts since the burnings — two at a joint U.S.-Afghan base in the eastern province of Nangarhar, two at a joint base in the southern province of Kandahar, and two at a high-security Ministry of Interior compound in Kabul.
The killings at the Ministry of Interior caused Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, to withdraw all ISAF advisers from Afghan ministries until security could be improved. When advisers do return, it's expected to be under tighter security restrictions, potentially limiting their interaction with Afghans.