Monday, April 4, 2011

Karzai And The Kook

Late last year a small-time, crackpot pastor in Florida named Terry Jones threatened to burn a copy of the Islamic holy book, the Koran. Jones' motives for this act of religious hatred were never really made clear, other than it served as a grade-A publicity stunt for his tiny, 30-member church. US military officials warned ominously that if Jones went ahead with his Koran burning, it could have dire effects on US troops deployed in Afghanistan along with harming US credibility across the entire Muslim world. After milking this stunt for its full publicity value, Jones backed off on his plans. So end of story, right?

No. Apparently, with little of the fanfare of his earlier attempt, two weeks ago Jones made good on his threat and did burn a copy of the Koran, after a “trial” where Jones acting as judge found Islam “guilty” of, well, I don't know what since it's hard to tell what this nut is talking just about anytime he opens his mouth. Unlike last year, the US media boycotted coverage of Jones' stunt, applying it seems the same logic to his lunacy as they now have to another collection of nuts masquerading as a church, the folks from Westboro Baptist – those fine people who “protest” at the funerals of US soldiers and public figures. Recently media outlets decided to stop giving these publicity-seeking cretins airtime. Jones' Koran-burning seemed like that hypothetical tree falling in a forest – there was no hue and cry from the Muslim world, even though news of his act of blasphemy did make it all the way to Afghanistan somehow, where there were a few low-key, peaceful protests.

That is until Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided to get involved in the matter. According to Sunday's Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, after the initial low-key protests Karzai went on Afghan television and made a fiery speech denouncing Jones and his actions and also demanding an official apology from both President Barack Obama and Congress. Karzai's tirade did what Jones could not; it sparked an outbreak of rioting in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The target of the Afghans' wrath though turned out not to be US troops, but rather a UN compound where aid and reconstruction efforts for the region were located, at least seven UN workers have been killed so far and unrest in Mazar-i-Sharif is said to be continuing.

So why did Karzai make a speech designed to whip his people into a frenzy so long after the fact? Frankly it's probably because Karzai is as much of an unstable, publicity-seeking nut as Pastor Terry Jones. And Karzai is in a snit both because Afghanistan lately has been relegated to the backpages by world events like the earthquake in Japan and the symbolic seismic shift in politics across the Arab world, and also because of US/Coalition demands that Karzai take steps to better govern his country like cracking down on corruption and introducing some transparency to his government. Karzai's standard response to calls for governmental reform - particularly when they strike close to home, like the recent run on the Kabul Bank, managed in part by his relatives - has been to try to deflect attention by railing against civilian casualties caused by the Coalition's anti-Taliban operations; “they”, the outsiders, are trying to run our country and are killing our people, is the usual subtext of these messages from Karzai. The Koran-burning then just provided Karzai with a convenient deviation from his standard script.

It is bad enough for the US/Coalition, now a decade into this Afghan adventure, to have such an incompetent, corrupt leader in the Afghan government. But when you have someone so actively working against the mission and efforts to rebuild his own country (keep in mind the people killed in the Koran protests were UN workers trying to lead relief efforts), you have to question the whole validity of the mission, especially when the intelligence community has been saying for some time now that al-Qaeda – the reason behind the mission to Afghanistan in the first place – has moved on to other bases around the world. One has to wonder if at this point it would be better to leave the continued efforts to provide security and reconstruction in Afghanistan to regional neighbors like Pakistan, India and China, perhaps building them around projects like the TAPI pipeline that would benefit the entire region. As Congress argues over cutting the budget, the $100 billion allotted to continuing the Afghan mission seems like a good place to start.
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