The Republicans Play Politics With Afghanistan: The Ticker

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By Katherine Brown

In the last week, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have decisively proved that they gravely misunderstand either Afghanistan or Islam, possibly both. The alternative is that they are playing politics with one of the most sensitive periods of the war in Afghanistan since it began more than nine years ago.

When President Barack Obama apologized on Feb. 23 for the burning of several Korans at a U.S. air base in Afghanistan, Romney called it an "enormous error." Santorum said it was "unacceptable" and that the Afghan people were "overreacting" to the mistake. Gingrich took it much further by saying Obama had "surrendered."

But such a gesture is, rightly, not without precedent in U.S. statecraft. Obama's predecessors apologized several times for international incidents the U.S. was involved in. In May 2008, for example, George W. Bush apologized to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki after a U.S. soldier used the Koran as a target at a shooting range. Moreover, General John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces and the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, also apologized four times for the Koran-burning incident in a Feb. 21 video to the Afghan people. So it's hard to argue, as Romney has repeatedly, that Obama is disregarding the counsel of his top military commanders in Afghanistan.

The recent incident in Afghanistan is still under investigation. But expressing immediate regret over it was something that both scholarship and politics -- and even conservative partisans -- recommend. As Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Post: “It was an important demonstration of respect for the Afghan people and their religious faith.”

Given that American lives are at stake in Afghanistan, the presidential apology was also a pragmatic and vital effort to try to quell the violent backlash. Tragically, more than 30 people have been killed in the aftermath, including four U.S. troops. Two of them were killed at their desks inside the Afghan Interior Ministry on Feb. 25; the suspect, according to an Afghan official, is a junior Afghan officer with deeply held religious beliefs.

It's impossible to say what if any impact the U.S. apologies had on the violence, which has declined greatly in the last few days. What's clear, however, is that they were the right thing to do.

(Katherine Brown is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial staff. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Feb/28/2012 16:30 GMT