You would be understating the situation if you claimed that Afghanistan operates idiosyncratically. As an example, the country's time zone is not Greenwhich Mean Time plus four hours, or Greenwhich plus five, but Greenwhich plus four and one-half hours. No one here has been able to provide me a compelling argument for the advantage of a country keeping its hours unsynchronized with those of its neighbors and most the rest of the world. The official Afghan calendar differs not only from the Gregorian calendar of the West, but from the standard calendar of Islam. Most Muslims worldwide celebrated the beginning of the 1429th year of Islam on January 10, 2008, the new year according to the lunar calendar; but Afghans adhere to a Persian solar calendar and just last week welcomed in year 1387.
The actual date of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday is not known, so Muslims typically celebrate his birthday in the third month of the new year. We infidels in Kabul were confused by the national holiday last week that accompanied the arrival of the solar new year, as we were three months into the Islamic lunar calendar and we didn't know if it was simply a celebration of the new year, or the new year plus the Prophet's birthday; and if they both deserved celebration, which one took priority; or if Afghans celebrate the Prophet's birthday in the third month of their solar calendar year, should we prepare for birthday festivities three months from now.
I'm not surprised that progress comes slowly here, as many people working in the country cannot answer with any certainty the questions "What year is it?" and "What time do you have?"
I was hoping that holidays in Kabul bring the sight of kites in the air, kite runners in the streets, and lamb kabobs on the grill. I saw and smelled none of that. Security experts here warned that some angry Afghans might be using the holiday to promulgate mayhem in the streets of Kabul by hunting down Westerners, so I spent the time restricted to the base. The holiday itself was not responsible for promoting native anger, but instead American officials feared a backlash against anyone European in appearance due to the February republication in several Danish newspapers of the infamous 2005 cartoon depicting Mohammed with a turban fashioned as a bomb; and the supposed upcoming release by a Dutch politician and filmmaker of a documentary that equates Mohammed with Hitler and the Koran with Mein Kampf.
The holiday incorporated a Friday, the Islamic weekly holy day when Muslims attend mosque. The rumors were that a number Afghans, angry with the Prophet's treatment in Europe and free from labor the afternoon subsequent to services, would break from the mosques primed by their imams' fire-and-brimstone damnation of all things European and proceed to stalk the streets of Kabul with AK 47s and hand grenades as they made their way to the Dutch Embassy to let Holland, Denmark and the rest of the world know, with the sound of gunfire and the smell of cordite, that they took great umbrage to this depiction of Islam and its founder.
Understand that guns and other weapons of battle are not uncommon finds in Afghanistan, a country that some argue remains the domain of sectoral war lords. If you swept a few square blocks of Kabul at any time of any day you would likely would a find a disturbing percentage of the population with weapons that the NRA would have trouble justifying as noble possessions. To claim that an Afghan street demonstration might feature guns is akin to claiming that New York City's Puerto Rican Day Parade might be short of Port-a-Johns.
But the typical American reaction to such a prediction is a flurry of expletives followed by preparations to hunker down in a secure building with soft drinks, potato chips and a TV to wait out the violence.
This theory and practice of "bunkering" to me seems counter-productive to the overall US goal which is to win the "hearts and minds" of all people Afghan and Islamic. I think this past holiday in Kabul, we Americans missed a chance at solidarity with and understanding of Afghans and Muslims. Instead of sheltering ourselves in our fortified compounds to wait out the anger and feared violence, we should have joined the angered Muslims in their protest. We should have met them, as they surged from the mosques, with sandwich boards in Dari reading "Follow me to the Dutch Embassy" and "Burn Danish newspapers, not Kabul." We should have changed the placards on the rear of our Humvees from "Stay 100 meters back or you will be shot" to "Honk if you read the Koran today." We should have patrolled the streets with loudspeakers suggesting that we protest vociferously for awhile before retiring together for a pleasant evening of tea and kabobs.
The Dutch film deserves protest, as it reportedly lambasts the founder and the book of a religion that has produced great learning and liberal thoughts. Islam was a repository of ancient knowledge and writing while the priests and rulers in the West were burning books along with anyone thought heretical during the Middle Ages. Islam helped the West revive itself after a very dark period. Not exactly the stuff of Mein Kampf. Take a look at the photo above of the Dutchman, Geert Wilders, responsible for the film. The man dyes his hair platinum blonde to to call attention to himself. If his art and analysis are as plastic, superficial and comical as his appearance, then he should be shunned.
Protests and demonstrations in the US are seen as expressions of freedom; they are considered spectacles of a thriving democracy. But the prospect of a protest against us, especially when conducted in a foreign land, seems to trigger only fear and trepidation and ruminations on impending danger. Part of my job and the responsibility of countless other military personnel here is to mentor the Afghans as they build their country and transform their society. We missed a good opportunity last week to model for them the preferred protocol in liberal democracies for public protest and the expression of collective anger and grievance.
There were protests in Kabul over the holiday, and the news agencies reported that the participants, whose numbers ranged from a few hundred to several thousand depending on the source, were calling for the departure of the Danes and Dutch from Afghanistan. They also burned various flags and chanted "Death to America." I'm not sure how we got linked with the Europeans on this issue, but I do know that it might have been different had we joined with the protestors, not hid from them.