In 1857 the East India Company, a British corporation that had colonized India for a hundred years, introduced the latest version of its service cartridge at the village of Dum Dum outside Calcutta. The cartridge had to be greased by hand to be effective. Rumors soon reached the Indian army contingents that the grease was made of pork fat -- unholy for Muslims, and beef fat -- unholy for Hindus. Entire regiments mutinied, shot their British officers and any other Westerners they could find.
Because the East India Company depended on the large native Indian army to maintain control, the Indian Mutiny almost ended British rule of India.
Amazed at the culturally inept behavior of the East India Company after their generations long occupation, the British government disbanded it and made India an official Crown Colony run from London. A British Army was sent to break the mutiny which it did using the same level of indiscriminate force that the Indians had in mutinying. But it was touch and go for a few weeks as Indian religious leaders fanned the flames of rebellion against British rule.
History has a way of repeating itself. Especially in South Asia.
It boggles the mind to think that after 13 years in that country, Americans in Afghanistan would be callous and insensitive enough to burn copies of the Koran.
Muslims believe the Koran is the very word of God. It is kept on top of book shelves and read by placing it on a wooden platform to prevent dirt from soiling it. One washes ones hands before touching a Koran, covers ones head when reading it. You couldn't spend a week in a Muslim country without understanding the Koran's significance. Now imagine the feeling of the Afghans who saw Americans throwing bag-loads of the holy book in a garbage dump and burning them!
The damage that has been done to the credibility of allied forces in Afghanistan and beyond is incalculable. When calm will return is anyone's guess as the New York Times reported:
"Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of the Korans ... took to the streets in sometimes lethal demonstrations in half-dozen provinces ... that left at least seven dead and many more wounded.
The fury does not appear likely to abate soon. Members of Parliament called on Afghans to take up arms against the American military... 'Americans are invaders, and jihad against Americans is an obligation,' a member of parliament said ... 'to urge the people from the pulpit to wage jihad against the Americans,' he said ... "This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children," a protester said referring to other recent incidents."
As during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, violent demonstrations and killings are in progress days after the burning episode went public. In a major breach of security, last Saturday, four days after the protests began, two American officers -- a Major and a Lt. Colonel -- were shot in a high security command and control facility by an Afghan using a silencer equipped pistol. Both officers were shot in the back of the head. The killer escaped.
As a result of these murders, American General John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has withdrawn all Western security advisers from Afghan ministries. The fallout from the unprecedented recall was summed up by the New York Times:
"The advisers' withdrawal cast doubt on one of the most critical parts of the international mission in Afghanistan: the mentoring and training of Afghan forces who are to assume responsibility for security and the war against the Taliban after the United States pulls out its combat troops."
The question in Afghanistan now is how far will the protesters go? And will significant numbers of the Afghan National Army and Police join in. If this were to happen the choices facing the United States would be bleak. One option -- rush in reinforcements to stabilize the situation, which would mean a bloody conflict waged against the very people America is there to help. The other option -- to accelerate the exit from Afghanistan, which given the number of troops on the ground and the recently adopted schedule to end combat by 2014 would look like and feel like a rout of American and NATO forces.
There is, of course, a chance that the situation may revert to its previous tinder-box calm. Awaiting the next spark. Which will surely come.
The British pounded the mutineers into submission in 1857 and held on to their Indian Empire for another 90 years. I suspect the United States will be lucky to remain in Afghanistan for another year.
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