The South Asia Channel

The different faces of restraint

When anger erupted last Tuesday over the U.S. military's mishandling of a large number of Qurans, it was clear that this was going to be big and bad - but nobody knew how bad. After three days of protests across the country, some of which turned violent, last Friday was going to be the litmus test: Would the whole country erupt into anger? Would it set off chain reactions that would be difficult to undo? Would the police and army maintain discipline? The day ended in a mixed picture: relief over the sense of restraint that prevailed in many areas; and sadness and resignation over the reports of violence and deaths coming from a handful of places.

All in all, it was not as bad as could be feared: people did not join in large numbers, the police and the army held together, most leaders used their influence to defuse rather than to ignite. In the following days the intensity and spread of the protests waned and by Monday no more protests or riots were reported. Afghanistan, it seemed, was not in the mood for protracted rage and all the violence that comes with it.

We have seen this pattern before: after incidents provoking wide-spread anger there are several days of demonstrations, some violent, with provinces taking their turn to express their outrage. And although some areas have multiple days of violence, in most places the protests start dwindling after there has been a significant gathering or flare-up. But there were reasons why it could be different this time: nastier, more widespread, more difficult to contain.

The Quran burning on Afghan soil was potentially far more emotive than other incidents in the past, like for instance the outrage over particularly tragic cases of civilian casualties or fatal car accidents involving U.S. forces (not the same sense of desecration and mostly felt locally) or last year's Quran burning in Florida (in a far-away country). There was also the issue of cumulative anger - people asking: how often should we forgive, how long can we tolerate - and of conflicted loyalties, particularly on the part of the police and the army who could be called on to protect internationals from angry attacks.

If Afghanistan was going to erupt into even more violence over the Quran burnings, it would have been on Friday. On Fridays you don't have to gather people, they naturally congregate in mosques. And it doesn't take much to get an angry crowd, just a passionate sermon and a few people who help heat up the mood. So on Friday most of us, Afghan and foreign, were waiting - to see what the day would bring and what the country would look like at the end of it.

Throughout the day protests were reported in about half of Afghanistan's provinces. There were escalations in the vicinity of American or government sites. Attempts to storm military bases in Baghlan and Khost turned violent and several protesters were shot. Towards the end of the day demonstrations escalated in Herat and Kabul - two cities that also experienced violent demonstrations in the past (2004 and 2011 in Herat and 2006 in Kabul). In Herat demonstrators tried to march towards the U.S. Consulate and clashed with the army when it tried to stop them. In Kabul the protests turned ugly and chaotic in the well-known hotspot of Pul-e Charkhi at the edge of town.

But the outright majority of the population either stayed inside or went home peacefully after attending Friday prayers. Most demonstrations ended without incident and none of them were massive (the largest seem to have counted a few thousand demonstrators). There was anger, for sure, but there was also a lot of restraint. Across the country people have been calling for calm and patience in their communities, not wanting to see more bloodshed. They did not manage to pre-empt all violence and there were still nasty riots in the days after, but it will be difficult to argue that the rioters were acting on behalf of the whole population.

After a week of violence, with around thirty dead and many more injured, it may be difficult to explain to the rest of the world, but in a way this is what relative restraint looks like - in a country awash with weapons and frustration, and that has suffered for decades from the young men itching for a fight and the leaders accustomed to using religiously fuelled violence as a political tool.

Despite the heavy hand of conservative religious power, the main debates have not been fully settled. There is a sprouting vocal new generation - not automatically democratically-minded or un-implicated in political deals, as is sometimes assumed, but certainly with a mind of their own and many of them determined to make something more out of their country than is currently on the books. And among the older generation, many are not sure they want to rally to the same rhetoric as they used to, having seen what can come of it. Afghanistan is still very violent and deeply conservative, but it would be a mistake to paint the whole population with the same brush.

But where do you go from here - with relationships so damaged and trust so badly undermined? The burning of the Qurans has greatly exacerbated lingering resentment and suspicion among Afghans towards the international presence. And the murder of two senior military advisers in the Ministry of Interior has left the international military feeling very exposed and angry over what they consider the much too feeble response of the Afghan government. Patience at home is running dangerously low, as angry stereotypes fill the comment sections of news sites. It has always been a complex relationship, coloured by high hopes, misunderstandings, and an increasingly resentful dependency. If it is allowed to settle, it will be possible to patch things up and to muddle on. But it will remain a relationship under a cloud and under very difficult circumstances.

For a discussion of the different faces of anger, click here.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, which published an earlier version of this piece on February 24, 2012. The original article can be found here.