What really sparked the Massacre in Mazar?

When I first heard about the massacre at the UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif last week, my first thought was that it was a more tragic replay of a scene from Bing West’s new book The Wrong War. In 2009, in the eastern Afghan town of Asadabad, a crowd of people gathered around a broken-down American truck. A grenade went off and a number of Afghans were hurt. A riot started, with the crowd chanting “Kill the Americans!”

Except as West points out, a video of the incident later showed that an Afghan had tossed the grenade. Here’s West (I’m pasting this from Dexter Filkins’ review of West’s book; for what it is worth, I didn’t think West’s book nearly as good as Filkins thinks -– but this passage is pretty startling):

“For three years, the provincial reconstruction team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. The P.R.T. had paid over $10 million to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a platoon from 1-32 patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of O’Donnell’s soldiers — whom they knew personally — suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.”

And so I had a similar initial reaction to the killing of the UN workers by rioters upset at the burning of a Koran by an idiot preacher in Florida. That after 10 years in the country, even the more peaceful and anti-Taliban parts like Mazar, it seems that the Americans (and the coalition in general) literally can’t buy a break. But as the story has evolved, it seems that what really happened is more complicated, and considerably murkier, than a spontaneous protest.

The official story is that a handful of insurgents from outside the city used the protest as a cover for attacking the UN compound, while a Wall Street Journal narrative of the massacre published April 4 argues that “ordinary Afghan demonstrators” played a critical role.

This fits with the Taliban’s own story, which is that they had nothing to do with what they describe as a spontaneous protest. In today’s NYTimes, though, Carlotta Gall has a story which claims that the violence was led by Taliban members, or insurgents loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Terry Glavin has different, and in many ways more worrisome theory. As Terry reported last week in Dissent, the massacre was not organized by Taliban or other insurgents, nor was it a spontaneous protest by offended Afghans. Instead:

The protest began with an Iranian propaganda initiative that was set in motion more than a week earlier, on March 24. Hamid Karzai himself played a central role in the affair. The bloody skirmishing that has left at least two dozen people dead across Afghanistan has gone so far as to cast a shadow over the future of the UN’s operations in the country. In other words, it’s working.

The first Afghan protests about the Koran-burning were staged by the Shura-e Olama-e Shiia, the Kabul-based Shiite religious council dominated by Asif Mohseni, the leading Khomeinist Ayatollah in Afghanistan. Mohseni is best known for having persuaded Karzai to sign off on the incendiary Afghan “rape law” in 2009 (which effectively legalized marital rape), an event that prompted protests by Afghan women and howls of international indignation. The Khomeinist-led Koran demonstrations in Kabul were the first that most Afghans had even heard about Jones’ vulgar escapade. (You always know it’s a Khomeinist event by the tell-tale slogan, Marg Bar Yahood—Death to the Jews).

Terry has more here. There are lots of unanswered questions in this story, related to the questions Terry raises about Iranian involvement. For one, why did the protests only happen in Afghanistan? Also, what role, if any, did Atta Mohammed Noor,the provincial governor, play in this? Nothing happens in Mazar without his approval.

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