WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Troops involved in a Koran-burning incident in Afghanistan should have known to check with cultural advisers attached to their units to determine how to properly dispose of religious material, a spokesman for the NATO-led force said on Wednesday.
German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, said members of the 50-nation coalition provide cultural and religious sensitivity training to all troops before and after they deploy to Afghanistan.
“The training of forces before their deployment and their training on deployment are regulated by the troop-contributing nations, but they all involve standards of cultural awareness,” Jacobson said in a teleconference from Kabul with reporters at the Pentagon.
“We have ... regulations that very clearly deal with predeployment training and cultural awareness,” he said, calling the burning of the religious material, including copies of the Koran, “completely unintentional.”
“Somewhere in the chain of command or right down to the personnel who has given the order to dispose of this material, somebody did not recognize the importance and the nature of the material, which right from the beginning should have led to the involvement of cultural advisers,” Jacobson said.
The incident led to a second day of protests and violence on Wednesday, with six people shot dead and dozens wounded despite an appeal for calm by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The incineration occurred on Tuesday when “a considerable amount” of religious material, including copies of the Islamic holy book, were placed into a burn pit at NATO’s main Baghram air base north of Kabul.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Tuesday that the material had been removed from a library at Parwan detention center at the base because of concerns that some was extremist in nature and was being used to pass messages among prisoners.
Jacobson was unable to say whether the material amounted to the detention center’s entire library or only a part.
He declined to comment on the material and on reports that the Korans had been written in, saying an investigation ordered by ISAF’s top general was aimed at determining the facts.
“That is one of the questions that had to be answered,” Jacobson said. “It basically comes down to why was this material selected, why was it selected to be destroyed, then given to soldiers who actually brought it to the burn pit of the Parwan detention facility.”
Jacobson said the material had been found by Afghan workers who run the burn pit. The workers on the night shift at the facility rescued some of the documents, including Korans, and notified the day shift of what had happened, he said.
Some night shift workers evidently took materials with them as they left, accounting for a charred copy of the Koran shown during protests of some 2,000 people on Tuesday at the base.
“The workers immediately interfered ... pulled material out that was partly charred, and we have seen Korans that were partly charred,” Jacobson said.
“The material that was at the pit at the time was secured straight away, partly by the workers who were there,” he added. “It was then quickly looked after by Islamic authorities at the location.”
Jacobson said an investigation ordered by ISAF Commander General John Allen was proceeding quickly. A team from the Afghan government visited the base on Wednesday as part of the investigation. Jacobson said a clear statement of their findings could be ready as early as Thursday.
The ISAF spokesman said officials believed the incident was an error and did not reflect inadequate cultural and religious sensitivity training for the soldiers.
“In general, we are quite confident that the measures that we are taking pre-deployment and on deployment are sufficient,” he said. “In this case we have seen misjudgment, in this case we have seen ... where guidance should have been asked for not happening, and that led to this tragic mistake.”
General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, called the incident a “tragedy in the relationship with the Afghan people” on Tuesday and speculated that it might be related to a recent personnel rotation in the region.
“We transition units over there and sometimes the new unit coming in doesn’t have the same appreciation for the procedures we’ve put in place to avoid these kind of things,” Dempsey told an audience at Tuskegee University.
“I think we’re going to find that this is one of those issues that got lost in the transition between units. But we’ll have to let the investigation play out,” he said.