I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around the killings in Mazar-i Sharif today, as I’m sure many of you are. In the video above, provided by TOLO, the crowd doesn’t seem especially frenzied, though it’s interesting to see how people in the street are barely fazed by gunfire anymore.
The basics of the incident are as follows: infamous cranky pastor Terry Jones decided to hold an official book burning at his parish in Florida. The book in question was a Koran. He did so with the specific intention of sparking outrage and offending Muslims. Crowds protested the burning in several cities in Afghanistan, and in Mazar the protests turned violent. Beyond that, things get murky.
For example, Una Moore, an aid worked in Afghanistan, says that there were no insurgents inciting the crowd, but rather local clerics with megaphones calling for protests. Afghan authorities, however, believe that insurgents deliberately incited the violence, including one “ringleader” from Kapisa province. The New York Times places blame on “a trio of angry Mullahs.”
What is clear is that this is a watershed event. What kind of watershed, however, remains unclear. UN staff have been targeted before: in 2009, insurgents targeted the UN by storming a guesthouse and killed several workers. But this time it was an angry crowd that did so, lighting fires and beating people back. While it’s entirely plausible that some insurgents whipped an angry crowd into a violent mob, these sorts of things don’t just happen without some baseline level of anger. Mazar-i Sharif is one of those places everyone lifts up as a success—even if recent news has been more and more worrying. It is that recent news—going all the way back at least to 2009 if you want to start being precise—that is probably driving the baseline anger that made a crowd like this susceptible to such incitement. The common sense used to be that Ustad Mohammad Atta Noor—the governor of Balk—was so successful in keeping people in line that the city had become functional and relatively prosperous. We now have to revisit that opinion (as well as countless other areas we blithely assumed would be fine once an Afghan thug began running it).
So it’s not just that the UN was attacked, or that Afghans are increasingly more and more angry at not just the U.S. but the international community in general (ahem) , or that protests and riots can sometimes turn violent. It is that a crowd of Afghans, with no obvious ties to the insurgency, in an area otherwise so successful it was flagged for transition to Afghan control, could so quickly spiral into such madness and fury that they murdered seven foreigners who themselves had precisely zero connection to an outrageous event that happened in a third country.
Something has changed here, and it’s something bad. Starting with the Serena Hotel bombing three years ago, there has been a steady increase in violence directed directly at aid workers in Afghanistan. First the insurgency, and now, it seems, regular Afghans, increasingly see those aid workers as part of the problem, and not any kind of solution. That is bad in so many ways. As Una explains,
This is not the beginning of the end for the international community in Afghanistan. This is the end. Terry Jones and others will continue to pull anti-Islam stunts and opportunistic extremists here will use those actions to incite attacks against foreigners. Unless we, the internationals, want our guards to fire on unarmed protestors from now on, the day has come for us to leave Afghanistan.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.