The Mazar Killings

by Joshua Foust on 4/1/2011 · 20 comments

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.”

Depending on your source, either seven, ten, or twenty people died, of various affiliations.

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 20 comments }

Thomasites' Legacy April 1, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Why is it that most civilian deaths lately are of Philippine citizens? Is there a special Philippine-US pact vis a vi our PC-COIN strategy?

Our first PC-COIN was in the Philippines after all. OR is this just coincidental?

Capt. Power ("when your powers combine...") April 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Filipinos is to the US, what Indians were to the UK.

Civil Servants, the people who fill bureaucracies to waste taxpayers’ money and slow a nation’s ingenuity to a halt.

Tim Haggerty April 1, 2011 at 9:28 pm

You can’t win hearts and minds with just the military. You can’t do these things with less than .1% of the country doing the work. We are not a serious country with the capability of doing good in the world but dilettantes who think we are all that and expect everyone else to be the same.

CE April 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm

A butterfly flutters its wings in a secluded forest;
the hurricane roars off a faraway coast.
A mustachioed hick burns a holy text in the swamp;
the blue hats are hacked to pieces in Mazar-i-Sharif.
What the fuck—

carl April 1, 2011 at 10:45 pm

There are an awful lot of unknowns here. Before everybody drowns in despair, we should probably wait until some of those unknowns become knowns, for example-how much of the crowd participated in the killing, were they a discrete identifyable (sic) group, were they not, what do the survivors of the attack say about the nature of the attack, what do the members of the crowd say went down and how etc etc etc. We do know that Taliban & company have been making a push in the area. Maybe this does indicate a fundamental change of some kind but until we learn more details about this thing we might be better off withholding final judgment.

Didn’t Mullah Omar advise his people to knock of the head cutting a while back? I seem to remember that.

Adam April 1, 2011 at 11:32 pm

After speaking to some Afghan officials and friends they condemned the violence and call it against humanity.

Anyways, why does it puzzle us when our military from day one shaped our opinion of Afghans are barbaric, criminals, uncivilized,etc to carryout a war and for public opinion…The feedback I got from Afghans was the west valued Afghans less than even animals, and our actions were combining hatred/revenge into this pressure cooker,_civilian deaths and the kill teams makes matters worse. Furthermore, the Afghan gov’t does not trust us because of our campaign to De-legitimize it in front of its own people, so all that pressure to get our way backfired(i.e Karzai and Obama conflicted relationship does not help, Obama landed in Afghanistan without Afghans being present and not meeting Karzai hurt both countries), It further gave ammunition to Taliban to prove to Afghans that Afghanistan has become a servant client state and Gov’t a puppet. The Afghans do not trust the UN, IMF, USAID or the international forces but Afghans have not resorted to violence in opposing international communities agendas. Afghans prefer the lesser evil than the greater evil of ISI Taliban proxies. Also, from the previous attacks on UN to current, these beheading are trademark of ISI and their terrorist loyalists.

*I wrote this comment on the wrong post earlier, so pasting it here.

Sekundar April 2, 2011 at 1:34 am

I don’t understand what happened. Mazar was the safest city, the UN the most milque-toast organization… More will come out, I’m sure, but in the meantime my heart goes out to the civilians, Gurkhas, and UN workers’ families.

maybeitsnotkoranburner April 2, 2011 at 1:49 am

Maybe the peeps are more pissed about the “kill team” from Rolling Stone Mag and not the hick preacher from Florida?

Afghans are savages, best to keep them there and to restrict entry to America, just like all muzzies (and jews). America should wake up, stop meddling in their countries, including Israel/Palestine, and let them kill each other. These people do not understand the word “humanitarian”.

Jamie Woods April 2, 2011 at 3:53 am

These are not even humans, if you still think they are then you are all blind. These people are insects that need to be squashed. I believe we should just nuke most of Afghanistan making sure it’s contained within so these pests are wiped. Nothing we do in that shithole can help anything. It’s best to leave.

Elli Davis April 2, 2011 at 6:40 am

I don’t want to ease the guilt of the Afghans as their behavior was unacceptable but I really think that the pastor should the first person to blame. He must have known how protective the Muslims are of their religion and everything connected with it. What he did was a provocation.

Mirco Romanato April 2, 2011 at 11:49 am

And it worked perfectly to show how Muslims are when they act as the religion allow and ask them to act.

As usual some Muslim leader will condemn the killing, with contradictory words. And the people that did it will be lauded by a much larger group of Muslim leades and both will not be punished.

I, for one, will not renounce my freedom.
If I want, I will burn my Qurans, Bibles, Torah or whatever.

Brett April 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm

No one’s saying that. There’s no question, though, that the Pastor went out of his way to burn the Quran in the most public way he could possibly do it. He knew it was going to draw an angry reaction.

Which doesn’t mean he’s responsible for rioting and murder, but he did stir it up.

All that said, if it hadn’t been Pastor Jones, it likely would have been something else. It’s only in Afghanistan that we’ve seen rioting and protests over it, which makes me suspect that most of the rioters were looking for a reason to boil over.

Adam April 2, 2011 at 11:07 am

If we say Afghans are savages than Afghans would say Americans are savages (& set aside the terrorist kill teams and Taliban terrorists). How many Afghans have killed Americans in America? How many Americans have killed innocent Afghan children, women and elderly? How many Afghans were involved in terrorism in the west? If Terrorists Taliban harbored terrorists and war was imposed on all Afghans, I ask do we not support, harbor, empower, and equip terrorists here?

I think our problem is- we refuse to step into the shoes of “others”, Many of us have not accepted the end of slavery and supremacy as we try to find servants around the world to serve us. I find it laughable how we are able to mask our racism, intolerance and violent tendencies by pointing at others- many of us still lack a moral compass…Luckly we are a nation of laws, otherwise we would have crazier terrorists roaming our streets…had we been in a continuous state of war for 40 years and all the poverty, injustice and lack of institutions plus an outside power replaces our 90% white congress with 90% black/spanish congress – I can only imagine what our civilized/educated population would do.

Mirco Romanato April 2, 2011 at 11:54 am

If burning a book is able to accomplish the end of international community in Afghanistan, then, be true, the international community in Afghanistan was already dead.
If I burn a Quran and my Muslim friend try to kill me, then I know he is not and never really was my friend. It was a lie. Maybe a convenient, pretty, lie. Nonetheless a lie.
The point is that too much people don’t want see the lie and don’t want ear the truth. Because they know, perfectly, that the true would call for war. Without compromises. Because, when a war is a bout religions, it is a bloody, merciless, war.

Shah Mojadedi April 3, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Speaking as an Afghan citizen, I do not justify killing those not associated with the Koran burning, but I am not surprised this happened at all.

I agree completely with Steve Magribi, who has a lot more experience than most working with Afghans. Maybe it is hard to understand Afghans but we also find it hard to adjust to foreign ways.

For us the Koran is everything. A simple statement, but all too true. I would not hesitate to strike or hurt even a friend destroying our Koran. I am sorry, but that would be my line with anyone, be they Muslim, Christian or UFO. No hesitation, and no sorrys.

This is really where we get into cultural lines. The Koran is a cultural line, we will not cross that line. Our culture is another line. We know you have your culture, and we also have ours. We can work together but as an Afghan we will fight and defend our religion and fight for our culture. It is as simple as that. Afghanistan is our country. We do not ask you like it or even live like we choose to live. But do not destroy or damage our Koran. That is a simple thing to understand about Moslems.

I myself am deeply Anti Taliban. That does not mean I am less of a Moslem, or even not a conservative Moslem. I do not adhere to the tenets of the Wahabi sect being forced on us via Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. I can never agree to Pakistan being overlord of Afghanistan or any country dominating us be it USSR or America or Pakistan or anyone.

Our overall consensus feeling here is that for the past 10 years we have had too much foreign aid, military, war, values etc. Many Afghans really just want to have their lives and their country back, as Mr. Steve Magribi pointed out. I have family in Kandahar in the villages, and in Nangarhar and in Kunduz. When we talk about foreign influence everyone agrees it is too much. They say when the foreign soldiers come into an area things get worse and more violent for all sides. There are no warm feelings anymore like in 2001 when we were so glad to be liberated by USA. Now USA is seen as very bad by many. We know we are poor but we want the aid done by Islamic groups who understand our culture. I will not go into the opinion we have about the NGOs and their small contribution.

The reaction to Mazar e Sharif incident is too typical. When eight foreigners get killed it is “outrageous”…when nine children get bombed while collecting wood, one of many such “accidents” it is no ones fault and no one even mentions it.

People should note the anger that ten years of foreign occupation has brought to the country. Note it please. The Koran incident was the thing that brings it out in the open but believe it is always there. We all unfortunately expect more such incidents. We all say the sooner ISAF leaves the better and take Petreaus with them. Then we can solve our problems poorly or well as Afghans independent in our country. Solving problems by ourselves is our wish.

I am upset because of these incidents we lose focus on the war with the Taliban. Because of these incidents many will join the Wahabis to kick the foreigners out. No one wins but the Taliban from these incidents.

I hope *Inshaallah that somehow some great change comes to this war because it is not going well under Petreaus. We need change now, this is a disaster for all of us. Let the Afghan Army take over now, and the foreigners leave so there are less incidents like this in the future. We want to control our future again, a simple request.

pete April 4, 2011 at 1:05 am

Pretty sure the Moslem God can cope with the holy words he gave the world through the Koran, being burnt by some idiot. It seems to be some of the people who claim to listen to the God of Islam being the problem, not the burning.
If a muslim burnt my Bible, I would be personally upset but would recognise that
1. It doesn’t harm my Lord in any way (the Earth will still revolve around the Sun).
2. The person who did the burning didn’t represent a single other, true moslem
3. A person with stronger faith than me would not in the least be upset

Weak faith, alienation, even unemployment seem to have led to the tragedy in Mazar more than any paper book burning.

Adam April 4, 2011 at 11:03 am

Pete, for the sake of this debate. We know any Anti-semitic language is illegal in several countries in Europe and we have seen what could happen in American, so would your argument apply to the Jewish community when people attack the Jewish faith? Everyone thinks the opposing side has a weak faith and themselves as superior( Is the Hindu and Buddist faith also weak?) . I suggest religious scholars hold public debates promote understanding or at least read on your own about the religion- to compare and contrast….I am not religious, but I respect others and would not define others without a solid understand, I think we have done enough damage to Muslims and Christians communities by pitting them against eachother to re-shape the world according to our needs. Any idiot can see that western media has portrayed Muslims as terrorists(car exploding in Ireland is not terrorism as my our news channels) and the Occupying powers as liberators(but those we are liberating do not think so). We need to step out of the box to understand why “they” hate us.

Western journalism has been sucked by corporate profit,lobbying and career growth- CNN and FOX won’t give us the truth nor is our two horse democracy. Do we not install their dictators, impose polices via IMF/WB that creates inequality, fund and train rebels who turn on us as terrorists?and we can go on- The “other” side is equally to blame. Terrorist Taliban killing people or a Welfare Army killing people is the same to me. Just as no one can fine another persons religion-no one can define my patriotism. The African, and Asian countries need to control their own political destiny and resources not former colonists(who tend to be White and Christians)- seeking to re-establish their empires by sucking the blood.

pete April 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Thanks for response Adam.

I didn’t mention our Jewish brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers because I didn’t think it relevant to what happened in Mazar. My mistake. As a catholic I am completely unable to compare myself with a Hindu or Buddhist or any one else. I only mentioned Islam and Christianity, because we are, quite frankly, the dominant religions outside of India. But pretty sure both Hindus and Buddhist behave in the same stupid way we do (ie Christians and Muslims)

Can not support you more about ‘scholars’ holding public debates. Wonderful idea. Sorry, but being of Irish background myself, we were considered terrorists during our attempt at liberation. Please check your facts. But please accept that most, if not all current terrorism, is being carried out by people who claim to be Muslims, My personal opinion is that they are followers of Satan. We, as people of faith, need to understand that our God expects more of us than we are producing,
Disagree with your comment about ‘western media’ Starting to reek of some sort of anti-white and anti-christian racism as your last paragraph suggests. You are far better than that.

Adam April 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Pete, In the name of civilization,Colonialism re-drew the world map which has caused harm to every community in the world and has even sponsored terrorism and arm both sides for profit/foal. You said “we were considered terrorists during our attempt at liberation” but how do you define an insurgency fighting “occupation” today in the name of liberation in Middle east, Africa and Asia? The Jewish question is a general question on equality in regards to “freedom of speech” and it application to one people and not another(hate speech for one is illegal and the other legal-seriously). I believe Christains, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddists and atheists are brothers who disagree on faith but came from the same initial form of creation, none is above the other. Politicians, priests, mullah, militarism and elites divide us to for their own greedy agendas…I question western media and our so called journalists(with exceptions) who merely play a role from a script. Absolutely, A muslim who straps explosive to himself in the name of Islam, a Christian who straps explosive to a baby stroller in the name of Christianity, a Jew who places explosive in a hotel in the name of Judism , or Hindu who explodes herself in the name Hinduism is/were/are terrorists and should be defined as such(current or past) and not by the religion- “both Hindus and Buddhist behave in the same stupid way we do (ie Christians and Muslims)”. Aren’t the past/current colonialism/military adventures being carried out by only Christian nations in Asia, ME and Africa?Where/Who trained Pakistani generals to train ‘rebels’ who have become terrorists today? Do you know how many Afghans committed terrorism in the west or 911? Did IRA go outside its borders into other countries? Who defines a liberator or a terrorist? Ireland and Palestine difference?

I strictly believe in non-violence as a form any resistance because it is effective and humane. I compare myself with everyone regardless of faith or color or origin as we are 99.999% the same- and never felt superior to anyone- I denouce hypocrisy in when it comes to meaning of equality. I see all as my brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers because after all we are human first before being divided by color and faith- We are all relevant because we shape this world- true patriotism of an American is shown when he stands against inequality, injustice even if it done by his brother.

Lets wish no one else is harmed by either side.

Beck April 10, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Pete, you have made very good points. I agree with you.

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