A New Protest Movement in Afghanistan

The events of April 1-2, 2011 in Afghanistan suggest that new trends are emerging in Afghan society. We believe they will grew stronger in the near future and influence the formation of a new Afghan political reality. New active protest movements are making themselves heard, and official Kabul has so far been unable to react to them constructively and confidently.

It seems that the “new protest” phenomenon in Afghanistan is the result of several factors—the long-standing military-political conflict, Afghan society’s weariness with it and the fierce competition by world and regional states interested in increasing their impact on Afghanistan—and that includes the reformatted American presence there.

The two faces of the new Afghan protest

Two different kinds of active protests movement have shown up in Afghanistan over the past few days.

1. The Quran Defenders Movement. The spark that ignited this movement occurred when the evangelic pastors Sapp and Jones burned a copy of the Quran in Florida on March 20, 2011. News about the stunt brought thousands of the Afghan Muslims onto the streets in seven provinces—Balkh, Takhar, Jowzjan, Kabul, Kandahar, Bamyan, Herat and Jalalabad. Violent demonstrations by members of the Quran Defenders Movement in Balkh and Kandahar shook the world. From 3000 to 8000 people participated in demonstrations involving the use of firearms in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar on April 1-2. At least 20 people were killed, including seven foreigners, and 100 people were wounded. The Quran Defenders Movement shouted tough anti-American slogans (it should be noted, however, that not one US citizen was injured during the protests). The Center for the Study of Modern Afghanistan (TsISA) reports that according to sources in the country radical Islamic clerics played a prominent role in organizing the armed protests in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar (the violent crowd in Mazar-e-Sharif responded to calls by several mullahs who had led the Blue Mosque congregation during the period of Taliban rule).

2. The “Supreme Reformers Council”. This movement, which emerged in Internet social networks, has already called for an active (massive, street) protest. However, in contrast to the Quran Defenders Movement, which is directed and organized by Islamic clerics, the Supreme Reformers Council is primarily focused on secular and civil values. It organizes the activities of its followers using Internet technologies (Facebook), and its goal is the implementation of anticorruption reforms in Afghanistan. This movement represents the interests of educated young people in Afghan cities. The Supreme Reformers Movement held its first press conference in Kabul in late March (which, incidentally, was ignored by most Afghan and foreign media). Dozens of the new movement’s followers gathered on a street in the Deh Mazang area for the press conference, during which members of the movement announced their main demand—a stepped-up fight against corruption. Participants demanded that President Hamid Karzai fire government ministers accused of corruption.

The new active protest movements obviously reflect the interests of two large social groups. The Quran Defenders Movement represents people in provincial cities who focus on traditional values and the authority of religious leaders. On the other hand, the “Reformers,” who grew up in the new Afghanistan and reflect the interests of educated young people in Kabul, are concerned less with traditional values than with modernization of the country’s political system, which currently lacks well-developed “social ladders.” That is not to say that the two new protest movements will be unable to find common ground under certain circumstances. Currently, however, there is no need to do so because the Quran Defenders and the “Reformers” each have yet to solve the problem of their own political survival in the Afghan social system.

A third force in northern Afghanistan

What preliminary conclusions can we draw after the grim April debut of the new protest movement in Afghanistan?

First of all, its emergence surprised the Afghan authorities and their Western partners. That is probably the reason for the haste with which government representatives blamed the Taliban as being solely to blame for the bloody armed insurrections in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. The Taliban have refused to acknowledge that they were involved, at least in the massacre at the UN mission in Mazar-e-Sharif and the murder of Western diplomats and Nepalese soldiers who were serving as guards.

The finding of “traces of the Taliban” in the Bahla massacre looks very natural, of course; it could be readily accepted by Afghan and international public opinion. Balkh Province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor and 303rd Regional Police Zone Commander General Daud Daud were exceptional in “missing” a plot by the Taliban in one of the quietest northern Afghan provinces. Incidentally, both Atta Noor and Daud Daud have irritated the Karzai administration for quite some time, and it is possible that Karzai will take advantage of the April Fools’ Day massacre in Mazar-e-Sharif to make a long-anticipated personnel change.

But what if the representative of the “violent mullahs,” Zabiullah Mujahid, was telling the truth when he denied that the Taliban was involved in the massacre in Mazar-e-Sharif? That, of course, does not take personnel changes off the agenda among the administrative and power elites in northern Afghanistan who were unable to prevent the massacre at the UN agency. But it also suggests that a “third force” has appeared in northern Afghanistan, and it has a management infrastructure and many active followers who are beyond the control of Kabul, the provincial authorities and even the Taliban. That structure is reminiscent of the network model of the familiar Arab revolutions of 2011, except that it is mobilized by local religious leaders, not using modern Internet technologies.

It is obvious that the search for the people controlling this “third force” in northern Afghanistan will become a primary objective of official Kabul and its Western allies. We will go so far as to suggest that the investigations could turn up evidence of both Pakistani involvement (Islamabad’s intelligence agencies have been trying for a long time to set up an infrastructure of influence in northern Afghanistan) and Iranian involvement (Tehran has recently become more active in Afghanistan, especially considering that permanent US military bases could be established there). Incidentally, the Quran Defenders Movement has already made known its negative attitude towards a future American military presence in Afghanistan. Sources report that virtually nothing was said about the provocative stunt by the two American pastors during the April demonstrations in defense of the Quran in the capital of the western Afghan province of Herat. On the other hand, furious demands were heard concerning the unacceptability of constructing US military bases in the region.

The UN in the crosshairs

United Nations agencies were targeted by the Quran Defenders during the armed uprisings in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar on April 1-2. We can only guess why the organizers of the massacres chose those targets, and the element of chance cannot be eliminated.

Perhaps they intended to use the foray against the UN employees as a “political amplifier.” After all, it would probably garner a much greater political and media emphasis than the familiar raids by militants on US and NATO facilities or clashes with the national security forces. The massacre of the UN personnel could have been intended to more clearly demonstrate to the international public the weakness of the Afghan authorities and the Karzai government’s lack of control over the situation prior to the withdrawal of Western coalition forces from a number of Afghan cities. In fact, the incidents of April 1-2 clearly showed what may happen in cities “freed” of a NATO and American presence if the Afghan security forces are left alone. Thus, the Obama Afghan strategy that involves a partial withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was discredited once again.

It should also be noted that the UN Security Council sanctioned a military operation against Libya in late March. And the United States and NATO forces set about executing the operation. That means the UN became an organization that sanctions attacks by NATO forces against a Muslim country in North Africa. Perhaps that also affected the choice of targets for the April massacres by the Quran Defenders in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar.

The demand for a “new protest” is growing

Despite the ill-defined nature of the “new protest movement” in Afghanistan, many Afghan politicians have already taken an interest in it. One in particular is Islamic Party of Afghanistan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In March, he called upon young people in Afghanistan to carry out a revolution like those in the Arab countries, overthrow the pro-Western regime in Kabul and expel foreign forces from the country.

Hekmatyar is obviously attempting to seize the initiative and take control of the Quran Defenders Movement. He probably hopes by so doing to increase the number of his followers, modernize the IPA and—in the future—have an additional political argument for holding negotiations with the United States to make sure his organization will be involved in Afghanistan’s government.

In addition to the Pashtun Hekmatyar, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a leader in the former Northern Alliance, has tried to claim the new protest movement—especially the Supreme Reformers Council—as the “youth wing” of his political organization. However, his attempts were stiffly opposed by the leaders of the Supreme Reformers Council. One leader of the Reformers said that the movement’s members categorically reject any linkage with existing political movements. “In contrast to the existing political parties, we do not intend to make a deal with the government,” one of the organizers said at the movement’s press conference.

Another threat to Central Asia

The emergence of new protest movements does not alarm the Kabul government and its Western partners alone; it also concerns the leaders of the Central Asian countries and Russia. The bloody massacre in Mazar-e-Sharif and the protests involving thousands in Balkh, Jowzjan and Takhar—predominantly Tajik and Uzbek Afghan provinces—revealed new threats of religious radicalization among Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun population and, consequently, the threat that this Islamic radicalism will be exported to the countries of Central Asia.

The April events suggest that the “New Mujahedeen”—the Quran Defenders Movement—could emerge in the countries to the north of Afghanistan, and not just in Afghanistan itself. This impulse could become popular in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, thus creating additional tension for the current political regimes in Dushanbe, Tashkent and Bishkek.

The Quran Defenders Movement (New Mujahedeen) represents a serious challenge both to regional security and the Central Asian governments and to Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space. It is unlikely that anyone today can guarantee armed rebellions under slogans of protecting the holy book of all Muslims will not take place in the countries of former Soviet Central Asia. Therefore, one of the main goals of Russian diplomacy should probably be finding new ways of cooperating with the Karzai government and Western coalition forces on joint efforts to neutralize the extremist forms of the new protest movement in Afghanistan. Such efforts are needed to prevent the Quran Defenders Movement from merging with the Taliban, the Islamist Party of Afghanistan or other radical armed organizations and to hinder the ideology of defending the Quran by force from being exported to Russia’s area of interest north of the Amu Darya.

Al-Qaeda’s evangelical allies

The Taliban and the radical mullahs are not the only major problem that Moscow and Kabul face in achieving their goals. Extremist pastors of some evangelical congregations in the United States are also a problem. If spiritual leaders like Pastors Sapp and Jones in Florida, who destroyed a copy of the Quran on March 20, continue their feverish activities with impunity, they will become quite effective accomplices of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan.

Of course, that does not mean that Sapp and Jones should be sent to Guantánamo. But if the United States and its NATO partners do not want to lose the successes they have achieved in Afghanistan in recent years, they will need to commit themselves to reacting more firmly and vigorously to the dangerous manipulative actions of evangelical ministers involving sacred Muslim texts.

President Karzai has already actualized the problem for UN Secretary-General Pan Ki-moon in a telephone conversation. Calling the attack on the UN mission in Mazar-e-Sharif “ruthless” and promising to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident and punish those guilty in the deaths of seven UN staff members, President Karzai called on Ban Ki-Moon to exercise his authority as Secretary-General to increase public awareness that it is unacceptable to use violence and insult sacred texts.

Karzai also believes that the UN general secretary needs to become involved in promoting mutual understanding between members of various religious sects, particularly in countries where insults to sacred texts have occurred.

Source: New Eastern Outlook

Leave a Reply