Much ink has flowed over the recent apologies from President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and General John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, following the burning of copies of the Koran and their careless disposal. An apology may have been justified. A national mea culpa was not.
When the president of the United States speaks for the nation, a national apology for the misguided acts of soldiers on the other side of the world has little meaning other than to feed the suspicions and hatreds of an enemy who hates the United States anyway. Implying that “we the people” are somehow to blame only legitimizes retribution on a potentially greater scale. Follow-on apologies by the secretaries of defense and state potentially extends that culpability to U.S. service personnel and members of the State Department. This compounds the threat to Americans posed by religious fanatics in this global war against al Qaeda and its confederates.
What is in order is an examination of the purpose and results of our strategy in the War on Terror generally and Operation Enduring Freedom more specifically. These apologies weaken the United States in the eyes of the Taliban, further jeopardizing our troops, who are already facing the daunting task of withdrawing to meet a temporal deadline driven by domestic political considerations rather than strategic reality. An army in retreat faces the twin threat of an emboldened enemy anxious to exploit perceived weaknesses and a force whose mindset is on disengaging and going home and not on fighting to win. No one wants to be killed on the day we turned out the lights at Bagram Air Base.
While controversy rages over the apologies, questions concerning this sorry mess remain unanswered. Who was responsible for disposing the Korans? When it was discovered that prisoners were communicating through messages written in the Korans made available by the prison library, who made the decision to burn the books? Did anyone think that these messages might hold intelligence value? What might have been learned had the messages been copied and analyzed? Did anyone think to slap a security classification on those Korans and then send them in secure pouches to CIA headquarters for exploitation? Had this been done under proper security, not only might we have gained valuable knowledge about the Taliban and al Qaeda, it would have been far less likely this sorry mess would have ever arisen.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.