PUL-E-ALAM, Afghanistan — Military investigators have concluded that five U.S. service members were involved in the incineration of a pile of Qurans in Afghanistan last week, according to U.S. military officials who have been briefed on the inquiry.
The burning of the Muslim holy books — which U.S. officials say was accidental — incited a week of protests that left 30 Afghans dead. The burnings also were cited as motivation for at least some of the six fatal attacks on U.S. military personnel that have occurred in Afghanistan in the past eight days.
Investigators appointed by Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, found that the service members removed the Qurans from a prison at Bagram air base after they were discovered to contain extremist messages.
The books were then placed in an office for safekeeping, according to the inquiry. But they were mistaken for garbage and taken to a landfill on the base.
Afghan employees identified the books as Qurans just as the pages caught fire, a major desecration according to Muslim teachings. The discovery led to a week of unprecedented tension between U. S. and Afghan military officials.
U.S. military officials said that although the five service members will be reprimanded, it is unlikely that their names will be released or that their punishment will approach the severity of what some Afghans are demanding, including trial in an Islamic court.
“For the soldiers, it will be serious — they could lose rank. But you’re not going to see the kind of public trial that some here seem to want,” said one U.S. military official.
Another military official said: “What they did was careless, but there was no ill will.”
The much-discussed investigation was intended to quell unrest and prove to the Afghan public that U.S. officials were both apologetic and willing to make amends for wrongdoing.
But U.S. military officials expressed concern that the investigation’s finding — which stops short of pinning blame on malevolent service members — might not satisfy Afghan leaders who have have publicly demanded harsh retribution.
Senior Afghan clerics, in a statement issued after a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, said: “This evil action cannot be forgiven by apologizing. The perpetrators of the mentioned crime should be put on a public trial as soon as possible.”
The clerics reiterated calls for the U.S.-led NATO coalition to relinquish control of military prisons to the Afghan government. “This incident was caused due to the illegal management of the prison,” the clerics said, according to a translation of their statement provided by the U.S. military. The clerics said they strongly urged “the suspension of all prisons and the transfer of all prisoners to the Afghan government so that in the future similar incidents do not happen.”
NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings declined to comment on the findings of the military inquiry, saying it was “still going through the legal process.” A separate Afghan investigation, which is being conducted by lawmakers and religious officials, is expected to conclude in several days. U.S. military officials worry that if the Afghan investigation clashes with their own findings, it could reinvigorate demonstrators whose anger has appeared to fade this week.
“There’s a real concern there. We don’t know what the investigation will say or how the public will react,” one official said. “But we know that there’s a real interest in trying guilty parties in an Afghan court, and that’s not something we’re prepared to do.”
Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said American officials “certainly hope” that the release of Afghan report will not lead to more violence. A third investigative panel that includes both U.S. and Afghan officials also is expected to issue its findings soon.
“We appreciated President Karzai’s repeated calls for dialogue and calm earlier and hope that people took them to heart,” Sundwall said. “We believe that we will get through this unfortunate period, that a decade’s worth of relationships don’t go away in a single week.”
When Afghan employees discovered the partially charred Qurans at Bagram, they launched a protest outside Kabul that was followed by dozens more across the country.
Afghan security forces and a civilian have killed six American service members in three separate incidents since the Quran burnings became known, including two who were shot in the back of the head while working at their desks inside the fortified Interior Ministry. In response to that attack, Allen ordered Western advisers to temporarily evacuate Afghan ministries.
Many of those advisers still have not returned to work. They are permitted to attend “mission essential” meetings with their Afghan counterparts, but only if they are escorted by an armed guard and wearing body armor.
“The incident in Kandahar set us back a few notches,” said one Western adviser, speaking of an incident Thursday in which two NATO troops were killed on a military base in southern Afghanistan by an Afghan soldier and an Afghan civilian.
U.S. officials said better oversight could have prevented the Quran burning. Coalition soldiers across Afghanistan are now receiving training on how to properly handle religious materials — a lesson ordered by Allen. Much of the instruction has focused on the meaning and importance of the Quran in Muslim culture.