As Afghan Riots Subside, Anger over Koran Burning Simmers

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Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images

An Afghan policeman uses his baton to disperse demonstrators during a protest against Koran desecration in Kabul on Feb. 24, 2012.

The Afghan landlord urgently banged on the flimsy steel gate topped with barbwire. As he entered the small compound adjacent to his own, he told the aid worker renting the house, "If anything happens, I will hide you in my house. And if anyone comes looking for you, I will tell them there are no foreigners here, just my family." Such statements may sound melodramatic — like something out of a World War II movie — but there was real fear in Kabul on Friday on the part of both Afghans and foreigners that demonstrations would get wildly out of hand and lead to horrific bloodshed on a fourth day of protests over the burning of Korans by the U.S. military at Bagram Airbase earlier this week.

"Today was quite crucial because [the Koran burning and protests] are still fresh. You had frustration and outrage, and you had people manipulating those feelings. So the big question was: who was going to capture that outrage and frustration and how bad was it going to get," says Martine van Bijlert, a founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

But as the sun began to set and temperatures again dropped below freezing, fears of more extreme violence and chaos have proven unfounded. Death tolls ranged from four to 12 across the country, the higher number pushing the fatalities into the 20s for the duration of the protests. While tragic, the numbers did not approach what some observers had feared. And though embassies and international aid agencies around Kabul remain on lockdown, and many shops remain shuttered, foreigners, security providers, ordinary Afghans and the Afghan government are beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. "The protests are fizzling out," one security contractor with years of experience in Afghanistan tells TIME. But it remains unclear whether this is because protesters were disorganized or because calls for calm were heeded.

For their part, most Afghans interviewed by TIME today said they are simply tired of violence. "We want peace, not violence, not war. Afghans are tired of war and killing each other," says Elyas, 23. "The protests today were small because the protests over the last few days did notghing but kill and injure Afghans."

"Today was a test case, since it's Friday [when worshippers gather at mosques] and things were much more likely to get out of hand today. Since they haven't, we know that the worst has passed," van Biljert tells TIME. "The worst case scenario was that the whole city would erupt in violence. With the mosques emptying all at once, it could have created a volatile situation. If you want to stir up a mob, you do it during a sermon. If you want to organize violence, you get as many mullahs to stir up their people as possible and set them on fire," van Bijlert says of Afghanistan, a country that is still much more dependent on word of mouth than on the internet, television, radio or mobile phones.

"The government has had days to get ready and the Civil Order Police are better trained than they were," says the Western security expert. Yet, even aside from better preparedness on the part of the police and disorganization among the protesters, "several local journalists say that mullahs' sermons were moderate," van Bijlert tells TIME.

Friday saw multiple small protests across Kabul and in provincial capitals across the country. The news reports on casualties were not consistent. Four people were killed (including a police officer) and around 10 were wounded in Herat, local television reports. Reuters said 12 killed throughout the country today. Other counts have seven killed in Herat and one dead in Kabul. News that 500 people had stormed the U.S. consulate in Herat were later denied by the consulate. The anger behind the protests is "beginning to fizzle," as one foreign security contractor put it. Sediq Sediqi, Interior Ministry spokesman says there was, "no major violence today," adding that three civilians and two policemen were wounded.

Late in the afternoon, protests did flare up around the Pul-e-Charkhi Prison — along Jalalabad Road, the site of the first big protest in Kabul on Wednesday. Observers reported between 300 and 400 people at the gates. Earlier in the day Reuters reported crowds throwing stones and shouting, "Death to America!" and "Long live Islam!" after leaving a city mosque. But, for the most part, protests across the country were relatively peaceful and the mood in the capital was subdued — with a heavy police presence on the streets. "I think this is really it. This one on Jalalabad Road is the only one that had any violence to it and today's protest was massively smaller than anyone thought it would be," says a Western security expert.

It will be surprising if the protests prove to last only a few days because Afghans have a lot to be angry about — a sentiment the Taliban has cashed in on, calling for, "all the youth in the security apparatus of the Kabul regime to fulfill their religious and national duty ... by turning their guns on the foreign infidel invaders instead of their own people as part of their Islamic conscience, brotherhood and as part of their national honor in order to take revenge for the decade old oppression of our nation by the infidel occupiers and to record their names in the ranks of warriors of Islam."

The Taliban's mood was echoed at a mosque in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, an enclave of embassies and aid organizations. "The Afghan government should ask President Obama if he supports the Americans who committed this crime," says Imam Mawlawee Ayaaz Niazai. "If he says 'yes' then no questions asked and all of America is our enenmy. If he says 'no' then hand over those Americans to the Afghan government and the government should deal with them using Islamic law."

Feeding on the anger, on Wednesday, members of the lower house of parliament called for the punishment of the U.S. soldiers who burned the copies of the Koran. Overcome by emotion, parliamentarian Abdul Sattar Khawasi, demanded harsh punishment for the soldiers and proclaimed, "death to America and the people who allowed them in," according to reports in the Afghan media.

At the same time, NATO and the U.S. military have been quick to apologize and call for calm. In a statement on Friday, General John Allen, Commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force called on "everyone throughout the country — International Security Assistance Force members and Afghans — to exercise patience and restraint as we continue to gather the facts surrounding Sunday night's incident." Allen said an investigation by a joint NATO-Afghan commission was continuing. On Thursday, in a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, President Barack Obama expressed "regret and apologies" over the incident. (Obama's remarks were criticized by Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, after two NATO soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier on Thursday.)

Regardless of apologies and requests for patience, anger remained high Friday evening — even if it was not manifested through extreme violence. But it ¬†could have been a lot worse. Van Bijlert cannot say conclusively what contained the outrage and frustration on Friday but she says that the fact that the violence did not spiral completely out of control, "tells us something about where Afghan society is heading, particularly in regards to the willingness to release violence. You have politicians who are willing to unleash violence versus politicians who are trying to mitigate violence." Today, for the most part, at least, leaders with cooler heads prevailed. "If it stays quiet, we'll see which voice has won out."

With reporting by Walid Fazly