Editor's Note: Allison Stanger is Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics and Chair of the Political Science Department at Middlebury College Middlebury College. She is the author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.
By Allison Stanger – Special to CNN
My last blog post was about the necessity of an apology, and this piece begins with one. I apologize to anyone who read my argument as somehow blaming American forces for the atrocities that a rogue Afghan officer committed in response to the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.
I have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation for the daily sacrifices that U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military have made and continue to make for the Afghan people. I am also fully aware of the dangerous environment in which our troops presently operate and that burning is the sole secure means for disposing of trash in contemporary Afghanistan.
My basic point in the original piece was that the Quran burning incident symbolized something larger: The dead-end course the United States is presently on in Afghanistan and the mounting frustrations that understandably accompany that reality. Many Afghans do not believe that the incineration was accidental. Many Americans believe that hemorrhaging U.S. taxpayer money for an unappreciative Afghan people no longer makes sense.
When the U.S. military burns Qurans, mistakenly or otherwise, and an Afghan officer responds to the insult with the execution-style shooting of two Americans working in the allegedly secure Interior Ministry, something has gone terribly wrong. The very idea that it is possible to partner with the Afghan government to build a more stable and secure Afghanistan comes into question.
A number of you have pointed out that our servicemen are young and unaware of Afghan cultural norms, fully capable of burning Qurans without understanding the offensiveness that act entails in the local context. If that is indeed the case –and it may well be so with the frequent rotation of forces - our chances of succeeding in a very complex diplomatic and military venture by any metric seem very slim. Whether the incident was really accidental, however, is still an open question. Three major investigations of the Quran burning are now underway: one American formal military investigation, one Afghan investigation, and one joint NATO-Afghan inquiry. The Boston Globe reported Wednesday that the joint NATO-Afghan probe is nearing completion. The outcome of each investigation should shed additional light on what happened and why.
Other readers wondered what the U.S. military should have done with the compromised Qurans instead of burning them. A better choice would have been to let our Afghan partners dispose of the security risk in a culturally acceptable way. But that may not have really been an option. The level of distrust between the Karzai government and American forces has grown too high.
With varying degrees of vehemence, all Republican candidates continue to maintain that President Obama's apology for the Quran burning was both a sign of weakness and inexcusable in the context of the murderous Afghan reaction. They misunderstand the deeper significance of any apology.
Apologies admit that something unintentional has transpired. They are also an expression of respect for the dignity and feelings of others. In apologizing, the White House upheld principles of human decency - the very values we are fighting to defend from Taliban assault. In reaffirming the American commitment to those values, President Obama's apology seized the moral high ground and was thus an expression of strength rather than weakness. It also arguably minimized the extent of the rioting that ensued.
On Monday, the White House again defended the apology and pointed out that former President George W. Bush apologized to Iraq in 2008 after an American soldier had used a Quran for target practice. President Karzai, however, has yet to apologize for anything. That his apology is unlikely to be forthcoming is certainly grounds for reassessing our relationship with the Karzai government and the American commitment to staying the course in Afghanistan. Apologies matter.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Allison Stanger.