Last week there were demonstrations in several cities in Afghanistan. The immediate cause was a report that US interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had defiled a Qur’an by putting it down a toilet.
In at least three cities, Jalalabad in the east, Ghazni in the south and Badakshan in the north, the police opened fire on the crowds and killed people — we don’t know how many.
This is an important change. The resistance in Afghanistan has been much weaker than in Iraq. When the US invaded in 2001, ordinary Afghans had lived through 23 years of war.
In 1978 a Communist coup led to a civil war. Then in 1979 the USSR invaded to shore up the Communists, and most Afghans united against them under the banner of Islam. A guerrilla war lasted eight years. Roughly a million Afghans died, out of 25 million, and six million were driven into exile.
Finally the USSR’s army was driven out. The Islamist parties in the resistance fought among themselves in local wars for power. Their leaders — the “warlords” — proved themselves corrupt. Ordinary Afghans lost all faith in them.
Then the Taliban invaded from Pakistan, supported by the US. At first many Afghans welcomed them, as they held out the hope of peace, order and a return to lost homes.
But the Taliban were narrowly based on the Pashtun ethnic group in the south and east. Even in Pashtun areas, the brutality of their dictatorship lost them support. And in the north and west, war between the Taliban and the local people continued.
By the time the US invaded in 2001, most Afghans did not welcome them, but they wanted peace. Many Afghans had fought for the Communists, for the Islamist resistance, and then for the Taliban.
Now they were deeply cynical about all causes. People were largely caught up in the desperate daily struggle for survival. Maybe, just maybe, the Americans would bring peace and reconstruct the country.
But the US faced a problem. Back then, before Iraq, Washington did not dare send in US troops in any numbers.
So they worked through the Northern Alliance, a militia that had been fighting the Taliban. But the soldiers of the Northern Alliance would not attack the capital, Kabul. They too did not want to die for anyone.
So the US, Pakistan, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance negotiated a compromise late in 2001. The Taliban agreed to give up Kabul. In return, their leaders were given safe passage home to their villages or to Pakistan.
Effective control of the rural east and south would remain with them. The US would win a propaganda victory and install its man, Hamid Karzai, as president.
Since then none of the Taliban leaders have been arrested. Some “foreign fighters” were caught in the north and were sent to Guantanamo Bay, along with some ordinary Afghans.
The US has sent patrols into the Pashtun areas, but has not tried to take control. Karzai has ruled in an uneasy yoke with the Northern Alliance.
His government has some power in Kabul, but even here coalition troops make sure they leave the city by five every afternoon.
Karzai is effectively a puppet of the US, which makes all the decisions. His bodyguards are US special forces, because no armed Afghan can be allowed near him. Those bodyguards stand in Karzai’s cabinet meetings to prevent his ministers from shooting him.
A helpless resentment has been building. Karzai’s government is deeply corrupt, as expected. But Afghans had expected a reconstruction of the country. It hasn’t happened.
And they had not expected the corruption in the western non-governmental organisations and charities, which has infuriated even the Afghan exiles who went back to work for them.
And yet, there had been an uneasy peace, with the resistance on a low level. But last week’s demonstrations suggest this may be starting to change. The protests appear to have been large and serious. In Jalalabad most of the crowd were students, and they attacked the UN building.
The slogans demanded an apology from Bush for the offence to the Qur’an, but they were clearly also opposed to the US occupation. Perhaps the most important thing is that there were similar serious demonstrations in Badakshan in the north, a traditional base for the Northern Alliance.
The majority of Afghans have now lived all their lives with war. They have been betrayed by every leader they ever trusted, and know it. It is hard for them to fight again. But desperation and cynicism have begun to give way to anger and demonstrations.
Jonathan Neale’s books include What’s Wrong with America, available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848.