U.S. political and military leaders have stressed that the violence won't derail the training mission. The coalition said this week that the suggestion that the mission was in serious jeopardy was "a gross exaggeration."
"It's business as usual. Nothing has changed," said a coalition spokeswoman, Lt. Lauren Rago. "We have hundreds of interactions with them every week. There definitely is a sound relationship there."
But at a news conference Tuesday, President Barack Obama appeared to suggest that the fallout from the Quran burning could lead the U.S. to accelerate its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"I think that it is an indication of the challenges in that environment, and it's an indication that now is the time for us to transition," Obama said.
Despite a partnership that's in its 11th year — and a training mission on which the Pentagon says it's spending more than $11 billion this year — U.S. troops and Afghans have long viewed each other with unease. The recent "green-on-blue" attacks by Afghan forces are the latest in a series that has claimed the lives of more than 70 American service members in 46 incidents since 2007. The violence has increased since Obama surged more U.S. troops into Afghanistan; half of the attacks have occurred since May 2009.
By comparison, during nearly nine years in Iraq, about six U.S. service members were killed by Iraqi security forces, according to Pentagon statistics.
For Afghans — some of whom have never accepted the presence of non-Muslim soldiers in their country — the burnings at Bagram caused deep offense, despite repeated assurances from American officials that the incident was a mistake. Some Afghan soldiers and police said they couldn't understand how U.S. personnel could make such a mistake after more than a decade in Afghanistan.
"Didn't ISAF know that the Quran is the holy book of Muslims, and that people will die for it?" asked Col. Mohammad Sharif, who's based at a U.S.-Afghan base in Paktika province, bordering Pakistan.
Muslims believe that the Quran contains the literal words of God, and every Afghan soldier or police officer that McClatchy spoke with said they would not hesitate to intervene if they saw anyone desecrating it. Most said they were prepared to use violence.
"If an American burns the Quran in front of my eyes, I will kill him. I don't care whether I live afterwards or not," said Jandad, a soldier based at Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense in Kabul. "My life would be worthless if I saw such a thing and didn't take action."
All the Afghans interviewed condemned the killing of two U.S. officers at the Interior Ministry — which occurred inside a supposedly well-secured part of the complex, causing shock among U.S. officials — saying it was wrong to target innocent people in retaliation for the actions of others. But despite acknowledging a duty to uphold the law and maintain security, some Afghan soldiers admitted they would side with demonstrators if they decided the burnings had been deliberate.
"If we know that the Americans burned the Qurans by mistake, we will defend them," said Mohammad Rahim, a soldier. "But if we learn that they burned it intentionally we will support those protesters who attack American bases."