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.
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."
"The Afghan police and army swear when they graduate that they will protect the faith of Islam," said a political analyst in Kabul, Wahid Mujda. "An Afghan soldier will fight to protect these values."
The anger that led to widespread protests appears to have subsided for the moment. Some Afghan soldiers said they wanted U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan and complete their training mission.
"They have come to help Afghanistan and we have joined the army to serve our country. We need their assistance. We need them till the Afghan security forces stand on their feet," said Abdul Tariq Akhtarzada, 22, a soldier from Kapisa province who was undergoing training at the National Military Academy.
Some soldiers expressed determination not to allow attacks on their ISAF counterparts.
"If I see a colleague who wants to kill foreign soldiers in my unit, I will stop him. I won't let him do it," said Rahmat Gul, a soldier who works at Kabul airport. "Our job is to maintain security — that's why we are wearing this uniform."
However, even the more optimistic admitted the fallout from the Quran burnings could affect the U.S.-Afghan relationship for some time. Sharif said that the killing of U.S. personnel by Afghan security force members would lead to changes in training rules — perhaps restricting the number of Afghans with whom international trainers have direct contact.
"The Americans may decide to teach the Afghan instructors first, and these instructors will then teach the Afghan soldiers," said Sharif. "It is hard for Americans to trust Afghan forces. That lack of trust will continue until things cool off."
Even some Afghans who said they preferred non-U.S. ISAF forces to Americans said they were not happy with the presence of any Western soldiers in Afghanistan. Police officer Ghulam Hazrat, who is based in the northern province of Kunduz and was trained by Dutch and German forces, said they behaved with greater cultural and religious sensitivity than U.S. soldiers, but he added that "these foreigners are all the same."
"They are all infidels," Hazrat said.
(Stephenson and Safi are McClatchy special correspondents.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.