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Koran burning protests: What should the U.S. do next?

February 28, 2012 | 11:06 am


This post has been updated. See the note below.

Deadly attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan are deepening concern at the Pentagon and the White House about winding down the war, The Times' David S. Cloud writes. The country has erupted into protest after burned copies of the Koran were found at a U.S.-run military installation north of Kabul.

In one of the most ominous incidents, two American military officers were killed in a heavily guarded Afghan government ministry Saturday, echoing the dozens of turncoat shootings that have weakened trust between Western and Afghan forces. That has fueled arguments that the U.S. should leave sooner.

"Too many people are asking, 'Why are we still doing this if the guys you're supposed to be helping keep murdering your soldiers?' " a senior U.S. general told The Times anonymously.

The Times posed two key questions to experts in the United States: Is there anything the U.S. can do at this point to defuse tensions or is it a lost cause? And what are the best steps to take next? Here are their answers:

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution

The rioting in Afghanistan is homemade but is being stoked by outsiders. Iran, in particular, has been using its radio and other media outlets to poison the situation and encourage violence. And it’s working. The most deadly riot so far was in Herat, the Afghan city closest to Iran. The Iranians are using the Koran issue to send a signal to Barack Obama -- if you play tough with Iran on its nuclear program, Iran can strike back hard in Obama’s war next door. Pakistan is also stoking the fire and encouraging the Taliban to exploit the Koran issue to weaken NATO.  For Pakistan it’s also partly payback for the drones and Abbottabad. The U.S. can only let the anger play out and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Malou Innocent, foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute

It’s really unfortunate. I would hope that the violence and the rioting and the mayhem abates. It sort of has taken on its own momentum. In terms of the Obama administration response I think they’ve been fantastic. I don’t think there’s anything else they could have done. They’ve apologized profusely. I hope that the GOP candidates don’t use this as a political football while so many lives are on the line; I personally think it’s a bit egregious for [Newt] Gingrich to take this righteous tone and say Obama is apologizing too much. Nothing excuses the killings of course. But this is a very sticky situation. There are parts of Afghanistan where you can be killed for less than burning a Koran.


I’d argue we need to begin expediting our withdrawal. Right now we’re treading water. I was an early proponent of training the Afghan security forces but if the training mission is not bearing fruit then we should begin to cut our losses. Many Afghans don’t trust us and we don’t know how much more often in the future Afghan security forces will turn their guns on Americans. 

James Caron, professor of South Asia studies, University of Pennsylvania

In public memory, and not only in Afghan public memory, offenses have greater sticking power than anything that can be done to compensate.

This is doubly true in a situation of foreign occupation, which -- cross-culturally, perhaps universally -- will almost always be guilty until proven innocent in the court of public opinion. Most of the statements that I have read by the rioters themselves contextualize this act as merely the latest in a string of offenses, most of which involve violence and loss of life, that contrast their everyday powerlessness with what they see as American impunity. This is why it scarcely matters to people whether the destruction of Korans was intentional or not; they're not in the position to affect the situation one way or the other. It's the lack of any sense of agency that's at issue, as much as the text.

I do believe, though, that this does not significantly jeopardize elite U.S. and elite Afghan relations, if only because public opinion among everyday Afghans has rarely been consulted in matters of everyday Afghans' fate; and the Afghan state is ruled heavily through coercion or the threat of coercion, as much as through persuasion. To my eyes, this will be different from other earlier and similar situations insofar as American public and political attitudes toward the American presence are changing, and heading toward some form of withdrawal in any case. The U.S., in such a situation, might worry about a post-U.S. Afghanistan preferring to try cultivating good relations with its neighbors. Yet, on the issue of international relations, I believe other realpolitik considerations would outweigh situations like these riots, which are fundamentally about the powerlessness of everyday Afghans before both their own state and the international community alike.

Andrew Wilder, Afghanistan and Pakistan programs director, United States Institute of Peace

There have been many mistakes made by international forces in Afghanistan during the past decade that have angered the public and led to protests, especially following air attacks and night raids that resulted in civilian casualties. On each occasion, after the initial outpouring of anger, and in some cases violent protests, the situation died down, and I suspect the same will happen following the recent Koran-burning incident. I think there are some significant weaknesses in the U.S.' current strategy that need to be reviewed, but I don’t think the events of the past week should be the main basis for reviewing the strategy. It wouldn’t be wise to rewrite our strategies every time mistakes like this are made.

I think much of what needed to be done to defuse tensions has been done. I think the prompt apologies provided by President Obama and Gen. John Allen were appropriate and important. Unfortunately, I think President Karzai was slow in trying to use his influence to calm the situation, and to call on Afghans to respond in a nonviolent manner. I think he saw some opportunities to promote some political agendas, including using this incident at a U.S.-run detention facility to strengthen his case that the U.S. should turn over the control of detention facilities to the Afghan government as soon as possible. During the past couple of days, however, when it was clear that the situation wasn’t dying down, President Karzai has played a more constructive role when on Sunday he appealed for calm.

Moving forward, clearly much more attention needs to be given to investing in cultural sensitivity training for all military and civilian personnel deployed overseas. It is quite shocking that after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the wars in these two Islamic countries, some U.S. military personnel are still apparently unaware that burning the holy book of Muslims is highly inappropriate.

Andrew Exum, senior fellow, Center for a New American Security

At this point, I do not think there is anything further the United States can do to defuse tensions. Obviously, this entire incident has been a massive “own goal” for the NATO coalition, and the president was correct to apologize. At this point, though, the bigger issue with respect to U.S.-Afghan relations is the killings of U.S. military trainers and advisers by their Afghan partners. The U.S. public has trouble understanding why the United States continues to sink blood and treasure into Afghanistan when the people we are trying to help are killing us. And the fact that our president apologizes for the accidental burning of a book while the Afghan president does not apologize for these killings feeds the sense among many in the U.S. public that Afghans do not appreciate the U.S. investment.

[Updated 12:30 p.m. Feb. 28: Aisha Ahmad, research fellow, Belfer Center on Science and International Affairs at Harvard University

Afghans are very religious people, and the desecration of the Holy Koran is an extraordinary offense to Muslims. However, these riots are symbolic of a much larger discontent with the international presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is horribly ineffective and corruption is uncontrollable. After a decade of trying to reconstruct the Afghan state, the international community is trying to make a dignified exit and declare some form of victory. But everyone knows that the U.S. and NATO are leaving and that the enduring legacy of the multibillion-dollar state-building agenda is destined to be chronic insecurity, rampant unemployment and a narco-criminal economy. The burning of the Koran simply adds insult to injury to a battered and impoverished population. Symbolically, it set fire to the one thing that gives Afghans hope and succor in the valley of death that we helped to create: their faith.

If you are looking to find an immediate way to deescalate tensions, then you are looking for a Band-Aid situation for a gaping wound. At best, the U.S. could strongly punish the individuals responsible. Unless the government and Army take immediate actions against the perpetrators of the burning, no one will believe that the U.S. is sorry. Afghans are sick and tired of hearing the U.S. say they are sorry. If you want the riots to stop, the government needs to take real action against those that are responsible for burning the Koran. That's your only chance. Even still, it's a Band-Aid and a long shot.]

For more on the Afghan protests and what they mean for the military, read about what Marines learn about Afghan culture, an anthropologist's take on whether the military could do more to avoid offending Muslims, and a lieutenant colonel who studies sociology weighing in on what the military can do now.


Afghanistan rioters injure 7 U.S. soldiers

U.N. pulls staff from Afghan office after riots over Koran burning

Afghan attacks over Koran burning renew debate on U.S. drawdown

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An Air Force carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Lt. Col. John D. Loftis on Monday at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Loftis, 44, died from wounds received during an attack at the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Steve Ruark / Associated Press