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U.S. Presence Divides Afghans


In Afghanistan, the Newsweek account of Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay prompted the most severe anti-American demonstrations there since the fall of the Taliban. Anti-American sentiment has lingered, despite Newsweek's retraction. NPR's Philip Reeves surveyed the scene from Kabul.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

As students gather in the sunshine after morning classes at Kabul University, angry young men are easy to find.

KHALID: Yes, I'm angry because this is my religion.

REEVES: This is a 24-year-old student of international law. He'd only give his name as Khalid(ph).

KHALID: This is an abuse if they have done something like this. This is really an insult to the people, to the Muslims, and to the religion of Islam.

REEVES: Khalid's friend, Javid(ph), a medical student, is also fuming. The source of their anger is a report last month in Newsweek which alleged a Koran had been flushed down a toilet by an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. The magazine later retracted that claim. But this failed to change Javid's mind.

JAVID: I think it was true. I--in my opinion, it's not a--good for the Americans--for existence of Americans in Afghanistan because, after that, if they continue, the situation will be worse than it is right now.

REEVES: But many Afghans are ambivalent about the role played in their country by the United States. These particular students are cosmopolitans. They tend to wear Western clothes and take pride in their English. And for all their indignation, Khalid and Javid still favor the presence of US forces on their soil. Here's Khalid again.

KHALID: American presence, in the long term, may not be OK, but for now it's OK that we have their support and build our country because we see Afghanistan does not have anything.

REEVES: That tension was ratcheted up last month by a separate controversy over the treatment of Afghan prisoners. This time, it centered on the US' detention center at Bagram air base, outside Kabul. The New York Times acquired an internal document giving graphic details of alleged abuses. These included reports of how a prisoner was chained to the ceiling by his wrists for four days and beaten repeatedly on his legs. He later died. How another was forced to kiss the boots of his interrogators. Malavi Abdul Haq(ph), imam at a Kabul mosque, was horrified.

Imam MALAVI ABDUL HAQ: (Through Translator) It was very surprising to me that a country which claims human rights, which says in every sentence of theirs that `We want to respect the human rights,' but still then themselves commit these types of crimes.

REEVES: The affair may prove more damaging to Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, than to the US. Karzai said he was shocked and set off on a trip to Washington, saying he'd demand greater control of US military operations in Afghanistan. He returned with an assurance the alleged abuses were the work of errant individuals. He accepted that explanation. The imam, Abdul Haq, and many other Afghans, did not.

Imam HAQ: (Through Translator) An American individual represents the American government. An American soldier represents the American Army. They should educate people, they should train people, and they should let them know what the sensitivities in here are, if they want to be wise.

REEVES: Yet the level of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan depends where you are in the country. The mood in Kabul is far less hard-line than in the south and east, the stomping ground of the Taliban and others still fighting. Professor Najib Fahim(ph), a foreign affairs specialist at Kabul University, says anti-Americanism tends to be more pronounced in areas where the US military is conducting house searches.

Professor NAJIB FAHIM (Kabul University): (Through Translator) The Afghans can tolerate 20 members of their family being killed in an explosion, but they can never tolerate a foreign troop coming to the house and physically searching a lady in the house.

REEVES: Such factors are all part of the complex mix that fueled the recent unrest. The worst violence was in the eastern city of Jalalabad where 16 people were reported killed. Paul Fishstein of Afghanistan's Research and Evaluation Unit says that violence was about the alleged desecration of the Koran, but also...

Mr. PAUL FISHSTEIN (Afghanistan's Research and Evaluation Unit): Frustration over the perceived slow rate of reconstruction. Some very specific complaints with local authorities, some of which then became directed at the international community as well, as well as potentially people trying to stir the pot.

REEVES: Pot-stirring's easy in an unstable country like Afghanistan. And with the release late yesterday of the US military's investigation into what it calls the mishandling of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, there may be more of it. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.