Friday, February 24, 2012

Bagram Burning... or Not

While I don't want this to be a political blog (I get enough of that in my day job) it did seem like I would be remiss in not commenting in some way about the events that have put Parwan in the spotlight.

Didn't notice that Parwan was in the spotlight? Join the club.  Most people, including a majority of those who live on Bagram Air Field - or BAF as my faithful readers already know are unaware of the province in which they live.  In fact BAF is right smack in the middle of Parwan, and easily visible (and audible) from my PRT, and much of Parwan for that matter.

As you doubtless know there was a recent incident in which Korans were "improperly disposed of" on BAF, causing deep insult and provoking many demonstrations, several of which ended in clashes and fatalities (the worst of which occured in a Parwan town far removed from BAF where four people died). Suffice to say - as every official from the President down already has, that is was a big mistake, and was unintentional. There was good reasons why the Korans required disposal, I won't go there.

Insert Juicy Riot picture of Burning Tire and Screaming Protestor - crop out the bored reporters and police on the side waiting for the show to either end or turn genuinely nasty

Anyhow, what has been heartening and humbling is to see the reactions among the Afghans.

Firstly, when they say that the Koran is the incarnation of god, they really mean it, feel it actually, in a way that we, who have vestiges of such tradition in things like taking the oath of office on a bible, genuinely cannot fully comprehend.  For us this is simply a cultural fact to learn, like not leaving your chopsticks stuck upright in your ricebowl (unless you really meant to end your day by calling out your dinner companion for a street fight). For Afghans it is simply an element of good upbringing (actually of any upbringing) and therefore presumed to be known, even by the infidels.  Like us, Afghans easily forgive our frequent cultural gaffs, like when we speak out of turn or accidentally sit in the spot of an elder.  However, as one friend told me "if we don't have the Koran we are nothing" so even if you can convince somebody it was an accident, ignorance of the Korans importance is itself deeply offensive. It might be like having a visitor from out of town break half of the ten commandments and then explain with a straight face that they didn't know stealing, lying, killing and making a graven image wasn't allowed in your house.  Even if you beleive their sincerity you would feel let down and violated, and probably a tad angry.  Afghans (particularly Taliban), cite this as the latest evidence of our barbaric nature, and I must say it is depressing to have a certain degree of empathy for that conclusion, however much I also understand that the error was an honest one, even an earnest one made in the course of trying to protect and serve both America and Afghanistan.

Anyhow, I've mentioned the bad news phenomenon before, and simply wish that people could see a bit of what else goes on when things DON'T go badly.  In this case, there were hundreds of community leaders, some elected, but most not, who encouraged and in some situations enforced peace on their neighbors. However slow the actual government may move, real governance, by which I mean communicating with, reacting to, and influencing the population, happens VERY fast and very well - just not through the channels we are familiar with.  People who are all but invisible to us as outsiders, and many we conveniently lump into the "bad guy" column were essential in preventing violence. This does not BTW mean they did it for us, they did not, they did it to prevent Afghan on Afghan violence and in so doing showed just a hint of how the country really runs, on a complex network of friendships, alliances and tribes that go back decades.

In short, today, the people in Parwan who really hold sway, decided after two moderate riots (as measured on my newly developed riot-o-meter) that they had sent their message, and wanted to go back to work on BAF (think steel company to Allentown only much more so). In fact, they even turned back "outsiders" from the next town over, who wanted to come through rocks at the poor G.I. manning the ramparts at BAF. Power to the people!

However, what is most humbling in the whole affair is how our Afghan allies have borne this burden without rancor or complaint.  As they swallow their own disappointment and anger at the incident they have nodded through our apologies and explanations and then quietly gone out to face elevated dangers, threats, and the judgment of their families and communities in order to stand at our side and get back to working towards a tough goal that just got notably harder.


  1. Always appreciate the insights!

  2. This is a great blog Bill! Thanks for sharing all of this info. I love getting the updates and I appreciate your perspective.