Kabul, Afghanistan – The United Nations has begun investigating the failure of the Afghan police to protect its staff during last week’s deadly riot in Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Afghan government has arrested 27 people in connection with the murders of 7 UN workers during a violent April 1 demonstration against the burning of a Koran by a Florida preacher. Authorities are calling the arrested men “international terrorists,” and have dubbed one of them the “mastermind” of the mob attack that left the UN compound smoldering and a total of 12 people dead, including several demonstrators and bystanders.

Outsiders are often blamed when Afghanistan experiences bursts of ultra-violence, but the basic facts on the ground usually point to a problem swelling from within.

Thousands of people poured into the streets of Mazar to demonstrate on the day the UN was sacked. At least hundreds broke into the compound. Hundreds of insurgents do not gather in broad daylight, for hours on end, unarmed, in plain sight of the police. If there were indeed a handful of bonafide terrorists among the throngs of screaming men –and we will likely never know for sure– they were far outnumbered by ordinary citizens whose rage had been stoked by a crackpot preacher from Gainesville, Florida and local clerics armed with megaphones and inflammatory half-truths.

When Terry Jones, the Gainesville preachere, burned the Koran, Afghan president Hamid Karzai said Jones had committed a crime against all Muslims and called on the UN and the United States to “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime.”

Then, the night before the deadly demonstration in Mazar, local clerics drove around the city, drumming up rage with embellished accounts of Jones’ deed.

When the crowd broke into the UN compound the following afternoon, the staff inside ran to the two bunkers built to protect them in the event of a bombing though, tragically, not a riot. The enraged protesters, carrying the weapons they’d taken from the slain guards, located one of the bunkers. When they grabbed the mission chief, the seasoned Russian diplomat recited the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. The protesters beat him badly, but spared his life. They didn’t spare the three other internationals hiding in the same bunker. One by one, the Europeans were killed.

On Saturday, thousands of men again took to the streets to vent their anger at Terry Jones, this time in Kandahar, hundreds of miles to Mazar’s south. When the rioters tried to attack UN and government offices there, the police repelled them with bullets. In its wake, the riot left 10 Afghans dead and a bazaar and a girls’ school badly damaged.

The riots of the past week have raised troubling questions about the state of Afghanistan’s security forces, the international community’s most costly investment in the war-torn country’s future.

While the Mazar riot made international headlines, it was not the first time the Afghan police were unable or unwilling to stop the outbreak of political violence. Last year, I interviewed a young man named Nasim, who had survived an earlier onslaught by an extremist mob.

In March of 2009, a few students from Marefat High School, a community-based secondary school in Kabul’s sprawling Hazara slum, took part in a protest against a piece of legislation that would have curtailed the legal rights of Shia women. A larger crowd of counterprotesters from a hard-line, Tehran-backed madrassa attacked the teenagers and chased them back to Marefat High School. The crowd ballooned and grew more vicious as it closed in on its target. Demonstrators smashed the school’s window, called out death threats and began trying to break down the gates. Nasim described how dozens of older students used their bodies to hold the doors closed, while younger students huddled together in the courtyard, crying in fear.

Outside, the local police egged on the attackers, who did not disperse until a unit of elite commando police showed up and began bloodying the crowd. Incredibly, this was a riot by and against Afghans from the same sect, ethnic group, and neighborhood. Pumped up on baseless accusations that Marefat High School’s principal was preaching Christianity, the rioters decided to unleash extreme violence on the children of their neighbors, children from their own long-marginalized community.

What Nasim called the “battle of Marefat High School” was a preview of the riots to come, and a clear –and completely unheeded– warning about both the enduring sway of religious extremism beyond the insurgency, and of the danger of relying on the police force to prevent deadly mob violence.

Despite knowing about the plans for last Friday’s demonstrations at least a day in advance, the security forces were completely unprepared for crowd control. The mob that attacked the UN compound in Mazar took over an hour to move from where it first gathered to the UN gates. During that time, the outnumbered police began shooting protesters in the legs, sending the crowd’s adrenaline and anger soaring.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The protesters then surprised police by pouring into the street and marching toward the U.N. office, more than a mile away. At one point, according to videos reviewed by the Journal, the badly outnumbered police tried to use a six-foot wood beam to hold back the crowd. The protesters easily surged past.

Only about 60 police were deployed, and they appeared uncertain how to respond.

[…]

Inside the compound, a small contingent of Nepalese Gurkha guards working for the U.N. faced a conundrum: They were under U.N. orders not to open fire on demonstrators. The videos show one guard feebly trying to wave an elderly demonstrator out of the compound.

And the violence might not be over yet.

Confronted by the press after the Mazar attack, Afghanistan’s top Islamic religious scholar, acting chief of Ulema Council Mawlawi Qyamudin Kashaf said, “I forecast such violent protests in Afghanistan in the future unless the U.S. government puts him [Jones] on trial.”

With Jones already planning his next anti-Islam stunt, a repeat of last weekend’s horrific events appears all but certain in the absence of rapid changes to how the security forces prepare for and respond to public demonstrations.

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