URUZGAN, Afghanistan—Two days before Afghanistan’s election in September 2010, some 1,200 Afghans stormed a NATO coalition outpost named Firebase Mirwais on a hillside outside Chora in the central province of Uruzgan, where I was the senior military commander. Inside were 200 Afghan soldiers, supported by 60 Australian soldiers and a U.S.–Australian team devoted to reconstruction and development in the province. Soldiers watched from guard towers as the crowd breached the first of two 15-foot adobe walls, opened a storage container, and set fire to a stash of U.S. and coalition military uniforms.
A young American soldier manning a guard tower on the inner wall spotted one of the attackers with an AK-47 assault rifle. After gaining permission from his sergeant to engage the enemy threatening the base, he fired two shots, killing the assailant. Incensed, some in the crowd charged the inner gate. If the central areas of the base were breached, there could have been an enormous loss of life. The coalition soldiers would have been forced to defend themselves and prevent the protesters from seizing NATO weapons. But before that could happen, an Australian soldier fired several rounds at the gate with a .50-caliber machine gun. The crowd saw the sparks fly off the metal gate and heard the deafening report of the coalition’s most powerful machine gun. They immediately retreated and dispersed.
The crowd regrouped outside the military camp and headed for the Chora district central office a half-mile away. Mohammad Dawood Kahan, the district chief, was in his compound guarded by Afghan police. There, two or three other protesters were killed by Afghan officers as they tried to breach the governor’s walls. The crowd disbanded and went home soon after the fight. This ended the demonstrations for that day, but insurgent leaders were able to feed off the unrest and reassemble the following day.
Although some Taliban were present in Chora, most of the crowd consisted of local citizens who had been convinced by insurgents and local leaders that coalition soldiers were infidels who had no respect for their religion and beliefs. More than 7,500 miles away two months earlier, Terry Jones, an obscure pastor with a tiny congregation in Gainesville, Florida, declared he would burn dozens of Qurans to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In Afghanistan, that news emboldened local insurgents in a way that not only cost the lives of civilians in Chora but also threatened to derail plans for peaceful elections.
Elections in 2010 were actually conducted in a much smoother fashion than those in 2009. This was the result of improved capability of the Afghan Security Force, more trust between Afghan Security and coalition forces, and the general population’s feeling of security as they went to their polling stations. With the next national election due in 2014, the challenge is for Afghan authorities to plan, prepare, and conduct the balloting largely on their own. Coalition forces will only provide support from afar. This will not be easy. The first elections after the majority of our combat forces have gone will be the ultimate test of our success in planting a democratic system that can flourish in some quite fallow ground.