Last week, in Afghanistan, a small act of carelessness or blatant disrespect – it doesn’t really matter at this point which one it was – resulted in the burning of Qurans and incited protests throughout Afghanistan. Now it looks like the Koran burning could signal the end of the military operation in Afghanistan. This is not an over-exaggeration. The fact that the Koran burning catalyzed widespread protest and targeted killings inside high security zones suggests that the entire NATO operation is unsustainable. The reason is a profound and irresolvable absence of trust between NATO forces and the Afghans.
Since the Koran burning on February 21, thousands of Afghans have hit the streets to protest the NATO operations in Afghanistan. This was closely followed by a series of high-profile shootings in which trusted Afghans inside high-security zones opened fire on NATO forces. On February 25, an Afghan soldier shot and killed two Americans inside the Interior Ministry in Kabul. On March 1, an Afghan soldier killed two more Americans inside barracks at an Afghan-NATO base. The shooters were Afghan citizens who were able to obtain access to areas that require high security clearances.
These were not the first incidents of Aghans' turning on their NATO partners, but the nature of the attacks and their relation to the Koran burning are a disturbing trend. It is not the sign of progress that NATO and the Afghan government are looking for.
Progress in Afghanistan can be measured in a number of ways, such as the number of civilian casualties, the number of attacks by Taliban fighters on NATO forces, and development indicators such as the number of girls in school or the miles of new highways built. These indicators and others are the types of quantifiers and have kept the Afghanistan conflict trudging forward with slow and painful progress.
But the current trust problem cannot be quantified or measured in any meaningful way. People simply have an instinctual feeling that it exists. Yet, the implications of the trust problem are serious and tangible in the way government officials shape policy. The current pullout timeline, scheduled for 2013, is premised by a steady transfer of power from coalition forces to the Afghan National Army. The pullout requires years of training and a move from active military operations to an “advise and assist” role. But the transfer of power will be difficult, if not impossible, if the NATO partners cannot trust the Afghans, and if the violent acts of a few individuals can undermine the trust between entire governments.
There is a saying that trust is the hardest thing to earn and the easiest thing to lose. Never has this been more true than now. The burning of some Korans may seem like a small event, but it represents a significant underlying problem. The U.S. and NATO need to decide if they are willing to invest billions of dollars and years of military involvement, or just cut their losses and get out.
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