Protest Deaths Highlight Afghan Dilemma

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The recently rebuilt road from Kandahar to Kabul has reduced the trip from a bone-jarring, 14 hour drive to a comfortable four- or five hour journey. Late on Wednesday morning, however, the road stopped just outside of Qalat, capital of long-restive Zabul province.

Rows of buses, vans and taxis lined the roadside at the western edge of town, waved off the road by a gaggle of heavily armed and highly agitated police who barked at anyone who asked why. The reason soon became clear: The demonstrations over the European publication of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, which had already cost eight Afghans their lives, had come to town. And in Qalat, as elsewhere, outrage at the cartoons was stoked by any number of other grievances and agendas, and it soon devolved into deadly riots.

Around 11 a.m., the police permitted TIME to enter Qalat. Afghan National Army soldiers and local and provincial police swarmed the otherwise empty streets. An overturned pick-up truck burned at the mouth of a road leading to the governor's office. Sitting on a rooftop lookout point atop his office, Zabul provincial police chief, Ghulam Nabi Mallahkhil, sported fresh bandages on his lower lip and one finger. Two demonstrators had been killed, he said, while several more and some policemen had been injured. His men had arrested about 30 people, who were sitting on the ground in the dirt lot below. To the west, a huge plume of black smoke rose into the sky from a fuel tanker that had been set on fire.

The previous day, the police chief continued, he'd asked local mullahs to call for calm in their sermons during Friday prayers. They had assented. But early this morning, approximately 300 people came into the dusty town and marched towards the governor's office. His men turned them away and thought they had the situation under control. But some demonstrators started throwing rocks — including one that hit him in the mouth — and one pulled out a pistol and fired shots. Security officers responded, firing first into the air, he said, then into the crowd, killing the gunman and one other. "These were not people from this area," Mallahkhil said. Rather, he asserted, the throng consisted primarily of Pakistani employees of a construction company located near town.

"Those cartoons were published in Denmark, so why are these people causing problems here?" he asked, as periodic bursts of gunfire sounded from the city center. Answering his own question, he said, "The organizers of this kind of event are trying to destabilize the country." Mallahkhil said he'd requested that the American soldiers based in town not enter the fray, lest they further incite the crowd. A police pick-up truck peeled into the lot, and officers pulled from it three more prisoners, including one suspected Taliban member, his arms bound behind him with his own turban.

Later in the day, it was reported that a total of four men had been killed and around 20 injured. Different officials gave different explanations — that the crowd had tried to march on the American base, or that it included Afghans angry that many local jobs had been awarded to Pakistanis. The differing accounts underline the uncertainty in the air.

By midday, calm had been restored in Qalat, but the trends in Afghanistan — where 12 people have now died, and where demonstrators have tried to march on embassies in Kabul, the U.S. military base at Bagram, and NATO bases in the north — are creating concern for the government and its allies. Although the cartoons are, ostensibly, the cause of these demonstrations, authorities and observers fear that the issue is being exploited by provocateurs in the various crowds who are out to provoke clashes and undermine what fragile stability exists in this long-suffering land. Several senior Afghan religious leaders issued strong, responsible statements denouncing the violence as un-Islamic.

The clashes sparked by demonstrations over the cartoons come amidst a raft of other problems facing the government of President Hamid Karzai, which remains heavily dependent on the presence of Western troops to maintain security. A resurgent Taliban has begun adopting methods such as suicide bombing, almost unknown throughout the decades of war in Afghanistan, in the hope of rattling the Afghan security forces and their NATO allies. A suicide attack on Kandahar's main police station killed 13 people on Tuesday. Now, Afghanistan's fledgling security forces must face down angry crowds and try to discern the difference between the righteous indignation of the faithful and the troublesome intentions of insurgents in their midst.

With reporting by Muhib Habibi/Qalat