Following the money in Afghanistan

As I get all curmudgeonly in my old age, one of my pet peeves is the media's schizophrenic treatment of certain news. The hot story of one day is completely forgotten the next. Or the insane, around-the-clock coverage of Terry Jones' threat to burn a Koran is dropped for some reason, then briefly re-engaged for a blamefest before getting dropped again. What gets left out is any thorough discussion of the heady mix that led to the murderous rampage in Afghanistan. So kudos to the New York Times for sticking with the story, even if I'm going to ask a few questions about how they handled it. "Taliban Seen Stirring Mob to Violence in Afghanistan" begins:

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- While it is still too early to say who were the killers of the seven United Nations employees here last week, senior police officials say they suspect current or former Taliban members or other insurgents of leading the violence, aided by sympathizers and hard-line mullahs who whipped up a crowd of thousands angered by a Koran burning in the United States.

The Taliban discussion goes on for the duration of the article. The article focused on politics and security but did a great job of incorporating religion in its explanation. To wit:

In recordings of speeches at a rally before the attack, speaker after speaker -- clerics and students -- call for jihad and death for infidels and Jews. A resolution drawn up by some of the protest organizers claimed that hundreds of Korans had been burned in America.

Religious leaders intended to show their strength, each leading followers from mosques around the city to swell the demonstration to 3,000 to 4,000 people, and then encouraging a charge toward the United Nations compound, police officials said.

"It was a political action firstly, and then they used the people’s emotions to get there," said General Daoud, who as police commander of the northern zone oversees security in nine northern provinces. As is common in Afghanistan, he uses only one name. The general vowed to find those responsible and put them on public trial.

Protesters filled the inner courtyard of Mazar's exquisite blue-tiled shrine to listen to two hours of speeches after Friday Prayer. "You should stand against the infidel," urged one mullah in a white turban. "Some can stand by the pen; some people can speak against the enemy."

He broke into Arabic and then translated: "The prophet says not just the mullah should stand against the infidel; everyone should stand against them."

But the main question I've had in this whole thing is why protests didn't erupt elsewhere, much less murderous ones. The Taliban ties are discussed mostly as a means to explain the violence but there are violent elements elsewhere in the world. The discussion included in this article is great, it really is. But I hope we get more discussion of other instigating elements.

Take, for instance, this article in Dissent, the liberal/social democratic magazine. It begins by noting the murderous riots and explaining that their location should not be a surprise at all. Reporter Terry Glavin writes that Mazar's Shrine of Hazrat Ali was a destination for Shia pilgrims and an everyday refuge of gardens for local Sunnis. The Blue Mosque is "a fountainhead of Sufi cosmopolitanism" and a marvel of classic Islamic architecture, not a "grim, radical madrassa." And because it's a rebuke to Islamism, its the "epicenter of everything that jihadists hold to be heretical." The city fought the Taliban in the late 1990s and has a governor who has fought Taliban-friendly Pashtuns who form Afghan President Hamid Karzai's base of power:

It was not in spite of these things but precisely because of them that about three years ago, Shia Khomeinists and Sunni Wahhabists teamed up in their efforts at subversion in Mazar. ...

From accounts of last Friday’s massacre that I’ve received from several Afghan human rights activists and journalists, what emerges is a picture of an opportunity that was just waiting for a pretext. What happened did not simply result from a protest march that began at the Blue Mosque and got terribly out of hand.

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.

On March 24, Glavin writes, the Iranian foreign ministry, the Iran-subsidized Hezbollah and Karzai all issued alarms about the Koran burning at the same time. There's more discussion of how the story grew in Iran and Afghanistan, then:

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).

Read the rest of the article for more explanation of how everyone got caught up in the fervor, fueled by misinformation.

But what I'm interested in is the Iranian connection. Glavin continues the discussion in a blog post. Last week the Washington Post reported that Karzai is distancing himself from Americans and their money.

Go back to this October New York Times report headlined "Iran Is Said to Give Top Karzai Aide Cash by the Bagful":

The payments, which officials say total millions of dollars, form an off-the-books fund that Mr. Daudzai and Mr. Karzai have used to pay Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders and even Taliban commanders to secure their loyalty, the officials said.

“It’s basically a presidential slush fund,” a Western official in Kabul said of the Iranian-supplied money. “Daudzai’s mission is to advance Iranian interests.”

There are some tough questions to be asked about why Karzai is fanning the flames in his home country when others aren't. I realize that for some this was "last week's story" but just because a story is difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be tackled. Here's to hoping more reporters and media outlets put forth the resources necessary.

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