Hearts and Minds Not Being Won in Afghanistan

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The Washington Post reports that mobs of angry Afghans converged on Bagram Air Base today, outraged over reports that American workers had burned copies of the Koran. Gen. John Allen has apologized profusely, but what really happened here? The Post explains:

U.S. officials said that the copies of the Koran were mistakenly included in a bundle of material bound for an incinerator on the base. The books were quickly removed once Afghan employees told American soldiers that burning them would be deeply sacrilegious.

But that intervention happened only after the pages of some books were charred. Afghan employees of the base carried those remains outside the Bagram’s front gate as evidence of what had happened, galvanizing a growing crowd of protesters. “The people who do this are our enemies,” said a 27-year-old who has worked at a warehouse on the base for two years. “How could I ever work for them again?”

So some soldiers made a mistake, it was immediately corrected, but nonetheless “pages of some books were charred.” Riots ensued.

There’s really nothing to be learned here about American waste disposal procedures on foreign bases. It was a screwup. Screwups happen. I don’t have the slightest doubt that Allen will make it crystal clear to everyone in his command that this had better never happen again.

Rather, the lesson to be learned is that stuff at this level is inevitable. You will never run an operation so perfectly that nothing like this ever occurs. And yet, this is precisely the kind of thing that is routinely used to gin up outrage at a moment’s notice. We think we can somehow win the hearts and minds of Afghans, but how can we do that when an incident like this can easily ruin a year’s worth of good works? Even with the most perfectly run operation, incidents like this are going to happen at least once a year.

We are not going to win their hearts and minds. In the past half-century American military operations have never successfully won anybody’s hearts and minds. It’s time to acknowledge this and leave Afghanistan.

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