The United States is trying to leave Afghanistan with as little additional loss in blood and treasure as possible after spending the last decade there. For that we need the cooperation of Afghanistan's government, its security forces, and the civilian population. That is not an opinion, but a statement of fact. You could say that the recent burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base there, even if unintentional, has done nothing to further that cause.
Instead it has predictably infuriated a population none too pleased anyway regarding what is increasingly perceived as an American occupation. Add that to the collateral damage among Afghan civilians as U.S. soldiers have gone after terrorist targets and it equals a very agitated citizenry. Riots have erupted. Last Saturday two U.S. military officers were murdered inside the Afghan Interior Ministry. On Sunday a hand grenade thrown by a protester injured at least six U.S. soldiers.
Might those angry Afghans have just been looking for an excuse, any excuse, to lash out? Were those books being used by insurgents not for religious purposes but to communicate with one another for decidedly unholy reasons? Perhaps. But it is still remarkable, knowing the sensitivity to this issue in the Muslim world, how this could happen, and in front of multiple Afghan eyewitnesses, especially after an incident regarding several U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban soldiers was captured on video and distributed over the Internet. Again, this is an utterly self-inflicted injury, though unlike the latter it reportedly was not the result of malicious intent. Military leaders on the scene and the U.S. government have rightly apologized, to little avail.
Fearing the worst, even the likes of an unreliable Afghan President Hamid Karzai has uncharacteristically sought to calm tensions. Unfortunately, a few of the Republicans running for president have not been so responsible, essentially taking the position that the U.S. should never concede fault under any circumstances. While Mitt Romney has struck a slightly more mature tone, at times, Rick Santorum said that any apology "shows weakness."
Santorum is representative of the disconnect that too often exists in this country. Have the reactions in Afghanistan been out of proportion to the offense, especially given the innocent if unthinking motivations behind it? Of course. Would the burning of Bibles in Kabul have elicited similar reactions in this country? Likely not. That said, would such an incident have been well received by the likes of a very religious if also very hawkish Santorum? Where would he be on the desecration of the bodies of deceased American soldiers? Or on, say, Afghan troops occupying U.S. soil for more than a decade? On drone enemy aircraft flying over civilian neighborhoods in, say, Pennsylvania?
This page is emphatically not justifying the behavior of these Afghan rioters. The U.S. has every right to defend itself, with the roots of our involvement in Afghanistan tracing back to 9/11. The vast majority of our military personnel, in very trying circumstances, have acquitted themselves in ways that should make Americans proud.
Page 2 of 2 - But it's also fair to say that a nation that proclaims the values this one does absolutely should try to be better than its unprincipled adversaries, and should not go out of its way to make unnecessary enemies. Acknowledging it when we fall short of that ideal - as Marine Corps four-star general and NATO commander in Afghanistan John R. Allen did - is not an expression of vulnerability but of strength. It was somewhat surprising, and disappointing, to hear the local defenses of the urinating Marines - if heartening as well to hear from some local veterans who would have none of it - but expectations are a bit higher for those who aspire to be commander in chief. What "shows weakness" is a candidate for the presidency who does not recognize that politics should stop at the water's edge. America's soldiers are in enough danger without candidates far from harm's way putting them, with their reckless comments, in more.
Again, too many mistake whom the enemy is here. As in Iraq, the U.S. is not at war with Afghanistan so much as in Afghanistan, with countless of its citizens victims of the Taliban and al-Qaida themselves. Of course they are frustrated by 10 years of war, as many Americans now are with far less direct exposure to it. And we are certainly not at war with Islam, as former President George W. Bush himself went to great pains to make clear.
This incident makes the job of getting out of Afghanistan with mission accomplished that much tougher, Osama bin Laden's demise notwithstanding. History can turn on the littlest of things. If we leave Afghanistan having lost the people we went there in part to help, and if al-Qaida regains a foothold there from which to launch another attack on the U.S., will the more than 1,900 Americans who died there and the hundreds of billions U.S. taxpayers spent there have been for nothing? Some need to stop checking their brains at the doors to these nations.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.