Last Wednesday President Barack Obama made the apolitical decision to apologize for the burning of Korans at Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield. Despite the probability that offended Afghans would regard his apology, one of many offered by U.S. officials, as insincere, the White House possessed no other option besides an expression of unequivocal remorse. Anything less would have reinforced the impression that America is insensitive to Afghan culture and Islam in general. Seemingly satisfied with his response, Obama then made the politically-motivated decision to counterattack the GOP by taking credit for “calming the situation.”
As the release of Washington and Kabul’s investigations looms over the deaths of two more U.S. servicemen, gunned down by an Afghan soldier, Obama is liable to pay more for his latest statements than an apologetic letter to Hamid Karzai.
Bagram’s Koran crisis is a hybrid-breakdown reminiscent of Raymond Davis and NATO’s border attack on Pakistani territory. According to preliminary reporting from The New York Times, Washington and Kabul’s investigations begin at Parwan detention center a week before the night of Monday, February 20th. Two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to sort through the library’s books and remove those containing writing that “constitutes a security risk.” 1,652 books were collected in total, mostly religious and secular texts, but the stacks included an unspecified number of Korans. Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanifi, a Herat parliamentarian who joined the Ulema Council’s investigating team, addressed a key question in the incident: what did prisoners write in the Korans, and does this act constitute its own desecration?
“We saw some notes on the margins of the books in which some of the detainees had written memories of their imprisonment, their name, their father’s name, location and the place where they were arrested,” he said. “These had nothing to do with terrorism or criminal activities.”
Washington and Kabul’s joint investigation (a non-binding committee) determined that once the books were boxed and “placed in storage,” U.S. soldiers “misunderstood orders” and loaded them for disposal. The exact details of this situation remain obscured, but one “Western official” said that Bagram’s facility lacked the space to store excess material, and the cache was ordered to be destroyed. During the exchange, “Some Afghan Army soldiers saw them and recognized them as religious books, and they became worried.” The group relayed a message to their commanding officer, but U.S. officials reached the truck after it left for Bagram’s fire pit. One Afghan employed at the base later noticed that Korans were being discarded with other texts, and hastily summoned his friends to retrieve the charred books. 48 Korans were allegedly recovered.
With Bagram’s chain of events loosely established by both sides, the Obama administration’s most urgent challenge shifts to the future of five U.S. soldiers “who accidentally burned the material.” Once again Washington and the agitated segment of Afghanistan’s population are headed in opposite directions - not the way to close a rift. One U.S. military official told the NYT, “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.” Those who “seem to want” a public trial include last week’s protesters, Karzai’s office and Afghanistan's Ulema.
Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told reporters on Saturday, "We are waiting for the result of the investigation by NATO, which will probably show who is involved in this and how many people are involved. After studying it we will announce our stance. What the Afghan president has requested from U.S. officials and the U.S. military is a trial and punishment."
After conducting an independent investigation at Karzai’s request, Maulvi Khaliq Dad cited divergent accounts within the U.S. military as evidence that the burning was intentional. The religious council concluded, "The representatives of the Ulema Council also said that the unforgivable and inhuman action of American forces in Bagram is something that could not be forgiven and an apology is not enough. The criminals of this action should be openly prosecuted and punished as soon as possible.”
These types of high-profile incidents have a tendency to dissipate in the near-term through private compromises, but each leaves an imprint that cannot be whitewashed away (thus accumulating mistrust and resentment). Due to a store of “regrettable incidents,” the impending prosecution of U.S. soldiers could yield a greater amount of fallout than Bagram’s fire pit. One on side of the world, neither Democrats or Republicans will accept a harsh punishment for a mistake. U.S. soldiers aren’t responsible for training themselves to dispose of religious material, and scapegoating will trigger a wider political firestorm that is sure to draw the White House into the GOP’s headgames. Since their superiors are fixated on this narrative - “the three soldiers on the garbage detail had no idea what they were carrying” - they must be held accountable to begin laying any believable foundation of justice.
American civilians, politicians, troops and military commanders who believe that no punishment is necessary will also reject this outcome.
U.S. officials have unsuccessfully argued that “what they did was careless, but there was no ill will.” Assuming that they meant no offense, the Obama administration continues to reinforce a lack of awareness that can be viewed as hostile in Afghanistan. The underlying problem (aside from Washington’s strategic woes) isn’t Bagram’s specific offense, but the perception that Americans are ignorant and careless. This visceral experience, replayed over 10 years, can overpower appeals to reason and forgiveness. Furthermore, while the Koran incident can be passed off as accidental, subverting Afghanistan’s notion of justice is undeniably imperialistic and liable to make new protesters.
Throughout the initial years of Obama’s surge, White House and Pentagon officials frequently reminded the American and NATO populaces that Afghanistan’s war will “get harder before it gets easier.” Given Washington’s current political strategy and rate of troop withdrawals, this war could get harder and harder.