WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2012 — Coalition members are working with Afghan leaders to quickly and fully investigate the “grave mistake” that yesterday ended in partially burned Qurans at the Parwan detention facility near Bagram, Afghanistan, an International Security Assistance Force spokesman said today.
Speaking from the Afghan capital of Kabul in a teleconference with Pentagon reporters, Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson of the German army said it’s of the utmost importance that officials “explain very, very clearly what happened, explain how sorry we are about what happened, explain that this was a mistake, explain what led to it, and talk about the consequences.”
Afghan government and religious leaders are investigating the circumstances behind the incident along with ISAF representatives, Jacobson said, and the results of that inquiry could be available within hours.
The inadvertent desecration of the Islamic holy book kindled protest demonstrations that began with a 2,000-person disturbance outside the detention facility yesterday, and continued today with at least four more protests, featuring 200 to 500 demonstrators each, around Kabul, Jacobson said. News reports count the death toll from the protests at seven, though Jacobson said no violence has been specifically directed against ISAF troops.
Jacobson said the Qurans were mistakenly included in a mass of material delivered to the detention facility’s burn pit for routine disposal. Local workers at the facility noticed the books and pulled them from the fire, he added.
“Material was inadvertently given to troops for burning,” Jacobson said. “The decision to burn this material had nothing to do with it being religious in nature or related to Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error.”
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, ISAF commander, quickly ordered an investigation to discover how and why the mistake happened, the spokesman said.
“ISAF has complete respect for Islam and the reverence in which the Quran is held,” Jacobson said. “We are very serious about making certain … that if someone failed to follow our rules, they will be held accountable.”
All 50 coalition member nations require their troops to take part in cultural training before and after deploying to Afghanistan, he noted. While such training has been effective overall, the spokesman said, Allen ordered yesterday that all coalition forces in Afghanistan will complete training in the proper handling of religious material no later than March 3.
“The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage,” Jacobson said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Allen each issued statements yesterday apologizing for the event.
Jacobson repeated those sentiments today.
“General Allen and ISAF, again, give sincere apologies for any offense that this may have caused to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan,” he said.
Jacobson said he can’t confirm news reports that the Qurans may have contained writing by detainees using the books as a means of communication with each other. “We haven’t got any proof of that yet, and that is a vital part of the investigation that is ongoing,” he said.
All material recovered at the burn pit was turned over to Islamic authorities, he noted, reiterating that Afghan officials are taking part in the investigation. Findings from that inquiry should determine exactly what material was involved, who gave the orders to dispose of it, how it got to the burn pit, and what actually happened when it got there, Jacobson said.
“We have to be very careful in what we do, what we say, what we look at,” he added. “This is a very sensitive subject, and we have to be exactly clear on what was found, what was the reason for decisions that were taken, and it has to be done together with the Afghans.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)