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The sort of violent demonstrations which took place in Kandahar in the first week of April against the burning of a Qur’an in the United States, with large gatherings of people and clashes with Afghan security forces, have not been seen since the late 1950s and early 1980s. Usually, says our guest blogger, the freelance writer, Felix Kuehn who lives in the city,* protests are engineered by one or other strongman who sends out his people to pay for day labourers to join the procession; the protests last a few hours at most and normally pass quietly. He and the younger generation of Kandaharis have seen nothing like this before.
In 1959, Louis Dupree’s description of the violent protests that broke out in Kandahar over government tax reforms are reminiscent of what took place here forty years later:
‘The crowd moved away from the mosque road. Bast [sanctuary]**would not be declared this year. Quickly, several ultra-conservative religious leaders and landlords whipped up the pay-i-luch (‘barefoot boys’; similar groups in Kabul are called sher bacha, ‘lion boys’) of the Qandahari bazaar, who have a reputation for troublemaking. What began as a traditional refusal to pay taxes rapidly grew into a anti-government riot. Obvious manifestations of modernisation were attacked, including the local cinema. The rioters later regretted this, for they did enjoy those Indian movies. They also damaged a girls’ school, several government buildings, and entered the women’s public bath (hamam).’***
It was not until 1980, that Kandahar saw similarly violent demonstrations – this time against the ‘Soviet occupation’ and the ‘puppet’ government in Kabul. ‘Soviets Wary As Protest Grows in Key Afghan City’ was how one reporter described protests where gunshot was heard across the city.**** A few months later, in May 1980, 60 protesters were killed in one demonstration. Last week, General Petraeus, seemed to echo the worries of his Soviet predecessors, when he said, ‘every security-force leader’s worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob, especially [a mob] that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions, in this case, perhaps understandable passions.’
The local government blamed the protests on ‘enemies of the people and country’ whom they said had placed themselves among the demonstrators for the outbreak of violence. There has been much speculation as to the role of the Taleban in the protests — both in Kandahar and elsewhere. The Taleban website ran articles on the demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar and later released an op-ed. There have also been numerous rumours about inciting sermons being given at the city’s mosques and insurgents taking part in the demonstrations, yet the events that unfolded in Kandahar seem to be more than a just a demonstration hijacked by insurgents. They were a representation of a host of issues that have fostered the discontent of the population in the south. The violence cannot just be written off by blaming the Taleban. Details of how the protests developed show that Petraeus is right to be worried.
On the morning of Saturday 2 April, people gathered in the Charsuq area, the first shots were fired (by unknown people) a few minutes after 9am and then the situation deteriorated rapidly. As the demonstrators moved through the city, shops and markets were destroyed and tires set on fire. Four local journalists,**** were severely beaten and their equipment destroyed. The Kandahar Press Club said the demonstrators were carrying sticks and stones and that some had weapons. According to one source, they denounced journalists as infidels and said Americans that should be killed.
They also broke into Zarghuna Ana High School for girls, where they set a school bus on fire and destroyed desks. ‘In the city all the streets seem to have become blackened with the fire,’ said one friend on Saturday evening. ‘Lots of shops are destroyed.’ Demonstrators had ripped out doors and destroyed storefronts. The movie-market, a multi-storey complex that houses dozens of DVD shops, had been set on fire. ‘Yes, they set the shops on fire and were burning things outside,’ one witness told me. ‘I saw one boy who was carrying out a new DVD player and wanted to throw it onto the fire, but another snatched it out of his hand and ran away with it.’ Dozens of Qur’ans were burned in the fires. ‘In America one crazy guy burns a Qur’an and here the demonstrators burn a hundred,’ said one friend. ‘This is not the Islamic way. Many of these demonstrators are young, they don’t even know why they are demonstrating.’
Kandahar City has a diverse population that has swollen significantly in the past decade, people fleeing from the military campaigns in the district come to the city, and refugees return from abroad. There are hundreds of mosques and mullas in the city; even though they don’t necessarily form part of the insurgency, many can easily be compared to Dupree’s ‘ultra-conservative religious leaders’ who hold views comparable to those of the leadership of the Taleban insurgency. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, there has been an underlying current of conflict between the mostly-rural mullas and the central state.
Much of Kandahar is conservative — and ‘very emotional,’ as some friends have put it. Were there insurgents at the demonstration? Without a doubt, yes. Taleban ‘members’ or affiliates are known to be in the city; they have been present in increasing numbers since at least a year by now. A number of people have observed that Taleban have been coming more to the city following the increased military operations in the surrounding districts. A substantial number has always been here, as well as tacit and passive supporters who might not play an active role but hold similar views to the insurgents. Demonstrators were reported to have been shouting slogans in support of the Islamic Emirate and Mulla Mohammad Omar and carrying white flags ( ‘Taleban flags’) and other symbols that depict references to the insurgency.
Yet, the depiction of the demonstrations in Kandahar as being orchestrated by the Taleban is simplistic and ignores a much broader underlying sentiment amongst the population concerning the American and foreign forces: a lack of trust. Many Kandaharis believe the United States’ ultimate goal is not to defeat the Taleban but rather has a hidden agenda embedded in wide-ranging conspiracy theories concerned with Central Asia, oil, Pakistan, China, Iran, and at times Islam itself. This perception has grown considerably in the past two years, and is echoed from Provincial council members to the day labourers.
Behind the swift move to blame the Taleban lies the artificial delineation of the Taleban and the population. Lines in Kandahar are naturally blurred. Religious students and mullas, while not taking actively part in the insurgency or even not lending tacit support, nevertheless hold conservative views. You do not have to be a Taleb in order to oppose the local and central government, the foreign forces and Afghan security forces in Kandahar.
Various things helped create the conditions for these demonstrations: the burning of the Qur’an itself, the recently published pictures of the so-called kill-team that shows smiling American soldiers holding up the head of a dead Afghan civilian, the immense pressure that the local population finds itself under, as well as the actions of the foreign forces and the Afghan government. Kandahar’s demonstrations potentially have far-reaching implications. They should be seen as indicators that are far more genuinely representative of ‘public opinion’ than any of the recent polls which claim to represent what people in the south are thinking.
* Felix Kuehn is a writer/researcher based in Kandahar city, he is the co-editor of Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef’’s autobiography My Life with Taleban, and co-author of the forthcoming book An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taleban/al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010. He blogs less than occasionally on www.felixkuehn.com.
** Bast is a custom which still permits a Muslim to remain in a holy place – or other area designated bast – unmolested by government authority.
*** Louis Dupree, Afghanistan. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 536-7 6; Herald Tribune Wire Service, ‘Soviets Wary As Protest Grows in Key Afghan City,’ Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 8, 1980
**** Sami Zuberi, ‘60 killed in Afghan protests,’ Anchorage Daily News, May 3, 1980
***** Bashir Ahmad Naadim and his colleague Seddiqullah from the Pajhwok network, Sami Ghairatmal of al-Jazeera and Mr Allaudin, a photojournalist affiliated with Reuters.