Holy books were mistakenly burned. American military personnel were murdered. Thousands of Afghans poured into the streets. Several days of unrest and violence in Afghanistan reveals a U.S. military focused on getting the job done and what experts say is an Afghan population that is simply fed up.
Since U.S. military personnel burned copies of the Koran and other Islamic holy documents—allegedly by mistake—early last week, four American military members have been murdered. Two were shot by an Afghan security trooper, the other two killed inside the Interior Ministry in Kabul. The Pentagon estimates nearly 20,000 Afghans have taken part in violent protests since Friday.
"From what I've heard from people in Kabul and Jalalabad, this is much more about Afghans' frustrations about the war, their lives and U.S. policies," says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project. "This might end up being more of a 'straw that broke the camel's back' situation. Afghans are saying, 'On top of everything else, you burned our holy book?!'"
Stephanie Sanok, a former House aide, says this could mark the beginning of the end of Washington's post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan.
"I don't see a way at this point—and I don't want to be an alarmist," Sanok says. "We have some very smart, capable people over there. But the Afghans are like, 'You have 100,000 troops here to keep us secure, but you can't? Why not just leave now?'"
Foust and Sanok say State Department officials—and some inside the White House—have worries about the state of the war and the declining prospects for a U.S. victory.
"It is anyone's game on whether Obama will start listening to the civilians more than the military," Foust says.
The military, however, is not thinking about leaving one day sooner than President Obama's 2014 draw down target.
"The fundamentals of the mission are sound," Defense Department Press Secretary George Little told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. His spokesman colleague, Capt. John Kirby, appearing on a video screen from Kabul, said: "Everyone [here] wants to continue the mission and get back to work."
The military will be "unwavering" in continuing its mission until the withdrawal date, Little said, also noting recent "progress."
The spokesmen's comments were in line with the military's can—do mantra, which largely has gone unchanged through the many ups and downs of the decade—long conflict.
The killings and protests raised new questions, however, about whether the military is capable of managing the myriad of issues at play in Afghanistan.
"The U.S. and NATO is able to pretend the protests are just about the Koran burning, and the Afghans are able to vent their political and social frustrations."
Radical clerics have been involved in "ginning up some of the vitriol" among Afghans, Foust says.
"The U.S. military and NATO have never really been focused on the political and social aspects of the war, and so they have no way to really respond."
The Pentagon spokesman attempted to pour cold water on the notion that trust between NATO forces and the Afghan troops with whom they are working closely with has reached a point of no return, But experts are not buying it.
For Foust, the NATO-Afghan relationship has been in decline for several years.
"The patience and trust was strained long before this," he says.
"How do you really build that trust at this point?" Sanok says. "It's one thing to be killed on battlefield, but it's another to be murdered in your office."