Thursday, May 26, 2005

With a Little Help From Our Friends

With a Little Help From Our Friends
Published: May 26, 2005

Kandahar, Afghanistan

ON Saturday, May 14, several hundred people gathered in the windswept main street of Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan. Led by local religious leaders, the crowd chanted slogans protesting the supposed desecration of the Koran by interrogators at the detention center run by the United States at Guantánamo Bay, as reported in the May 9 issue of Newsweek.

Unlike protests widely covered in the news media, this one was peaceful and broke up after about an hour. And there lies a paradox: Zabul is one of the country's most conservative and anti-Western provinces. Only a few miles away on the very road where the demonstration took place, vehicles carrying Afghan employees of international organizations are regularly ambushed.

It is inconceivable that the residents of Zabul are less pained than other Afghans by an alleged insult to what they believe is the living word of God. And yet their protest came days late and featured none of the violence, vandalism or loss of life suffered elsewhere. Why the disparity?

For me, after three years in southern Afghanistan, something felt not quite right about the more virulent demonstrations across the country. The instant tip-off was that they were initially led by university students. Afghans and Westerners living in Kandahar have often wondered at the number of Pakistani students in what passes for a university here. The place is pathetically dilapidated, the library a locked storeroom, the medical faculty bereft of the most elementary skeleton or model of the human body. Why would anyone come here to study from Pakistan? Our unshakable conclusion has been that the adroit Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is planting operatives in the student body. These students can also provoke agitation at Pakistani officials' behest, while affording the government in Islamabad plausible deniability.

In both Kandahar and Kabul, alert Afghan government officials were able to calm demonstrations by holding discussions with student leaders, an indication of the degree to which protesters' actions were manipulated and not the result of spontaneous outrage.

In other words, it's a mistake to focus on the Newsweek article as the cause of the recent demonstrations in Afghanistan. Instead, the reason was President Hamid Karzai's May 8 announcement that Afghanistan would enter a long-term strategic partnership with the United States.

Such an alliance discomfits Afghanistan's neighbors. Pakistan, for one, is used to treating Afghanistan as an all but subject territory. The events of Sept. 11 and the sudden arrival of the United States changed all that, to the muted chagrin of Islamabad. ....