Mishaps, lapses in judgment are to blame, they say
KABUL - US and Afghan officials investigating the Koran-burning episode that has brought relations between the countries to a new low say that the destruction could have been headed off at several points along a chain of mishaps, poor judgments, and ignored procedures, according to interviews over the past week.
Even as Americans have raced to ease Afghan outrage over the burning, releasing information yesterday that US service members could face disciplinary action, accounts from more than a dozen Americans and Afghans involved in investigating the incineration laid out a complex string of events that will do little to assuage an Afghan public that in some quarters has called for deaths to avenge the sacrilege.
The crisis over the burning, carried out by US soldiers near the detention center in Parwan on Feb. 20, brought a short-term halt to cooperation between the Americans and Afghans and has complicated almost every aspect of planning and negotiation for a military withdrawal. The burning touched off nationwide rioting and the increased targeting of US troops, leaving at least 29 Afghans and six US soldiers dead in the past week.
Yesterday, an official close to a joint US-Afghan investigation noted that the final report would call for disciplinary review for at least five people involved in the Koran burning, including US military “leaders’’ and an Afghan-American interpreter.
The same day, the preeminent body of Afghan religious leaders, the Ulema Council, which conducted its own inquiry, demanded that the United States immediately hand over prison operations to the Afghan government and publicly punish those involved in the Koran burning.
The responses highlighted continuing and deep differences between US and Afghan concepts of justice: US officials insist that no deliberate insult was intended and that the military justice system and apologies should suffice, while the Afghan religious leaders demand that public identification and punishment of the offenders is the only path to soothe the outrage of Afghans over what they see as an unforgivable desecration of God’s words.
“There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven but that need to be punished,’’ said Maulavi Khaliq Dad, a member of the Ulema Council.
A US military official familiar with the joint investigation somberly described the burning as a “tragedy’’ but rejected any suggestion that it was intentional.
“There was no maliciousness, there was no deliberateness, there was not an intentional disrespect of Islam,’’ he said.
At the very least, the accounts of the Americans and the Afghans involved in the investigation offer a parable of the dire consequences of carelessness about Afghan values.
The account begins about a week before the burning, when officers at the detention center in Parwan became worried that detainees were secretly communicating through notes scribbled in library books, possibly to plot an attack.
Two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to sift through the library’s books and set aside those that had writing that might constitute a security risk, said Maulavi Dad and other members of the Ulema Council team who visited the detention center and were briefed by the military.
It is in asking why the books were not simply stored that one of several faulty decisions becomes apparent, according to another military official familiar with the investigation.
“You have separated a huge number of books - it will come out 1,652,’’ the official said, “and those that are in charge say, ‘We don’t have the storage capacity; this is sensitive material.’ ’’
Sometime on Feb. 20, the books were transported by a work detail of several soldiers to the truck that would ultimately take them to the incinerator. That posed another missed opportunity. Some Afghan Army soldiers saw the books, recognized them as religious books, and became worried, Maulavi Dad said. Worried that Korans might be among the books, the Afghan soldiers reported to their commanding officer.
A US officer knowledgeable about the joint investigation said the problem was that by the time the Afghan officer relayed the concerns to his US counterpart, the vehicle was already on the way to the incinerator.
Both Afghan and US officials believed that the three soldiers driving the holy books to their destination had little or no understanding of what they were carrying. “For those three soldiers, this was nothing more than a work detail,’’ one military official said.