Can United States defuse Quran burning uproar?

WASHINGTON -- After a third day of bloody protests over the burning of the Quran, there is a sense that America is lurching from one image crisis to the next in Afghanistan, with no clear path for US officials to defuse the latest uproar.

President Barack Obama apologized on Thursday for the burning of copies of the Quran on a US base in Afghanistan, an incident that has triggered far more outcry than another shocking incident: the emergence of a video last month showing Marines urinating on the corpses of what appear to be dead Taliban fighters. 

Obama's apology over the Quran burning has been accompanied by other steps by the US military meant to show remorse over what it sees as a tragic blunder. The Pentagon detailed the new outreach to Muslim leaders, and the top US commander in Afghanistan has promised training on the proper handling of religious materials as well as a swift investigation.  

But analysts are doubtful more can be done to calm Afghans incensed by the destruction of Islam's holy book.

Instead, outrage in Afghanistan may have to simply run its course, leaving America to grapple with any fallout on its delicate campaign to foster reconciliation and forge a long-term security agreement with Afghanistan.

"The US has pretty much done all it can do," said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation think tank. "To a certain degree, all [the US] can do now is wait for tempers to cool."

Whether more violence follows Friday prayers in Afghanistan could be an indicator whether the protests are still building, or beginning to peter out.

The Taliban has urged Afghans to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation and, on Thursday, a man wearing an Afghan army uniform opened fire on two American service members. NATO has declined to say if the shooting was connected to the protests.

President Hamid Karzai's office said on Thursday it wanted NATO to put on public trial those responsible. 

But US service members are usually shielded from local prosecution and a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was highly unlikely a US soldier would be disciplined outside the US military justice system.

Series of scandals

The Quran-burning incident is only the latest image nightmare for the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Earlier in February, the Pentagon grappled with fallout from a photo showing Marines with what looked like a Nazi SS flag. 

In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly condemned the video showing US forces urinating on Taliban corpses.

Just a week ago, NATO-led forces killed eight young Afghans in an air strike that enraged the Afghan government and came on the heels of a United Nations report showing civilian casualties in the decade-long war rose again in 2011.

But perhaps the most damaging incident, at least regionally, took place just across the border in Pakistan last November, when Afghan-based American forces killed 24 Pakistani troops. That prompted Islamabad to cut off ground-supply routes used to truck in essential materials for the war effort in Afghanistan.  

How the Quran-burning incident adds to the headaches of American military commanders remains to be seen, but there is palpable frustration in Washington.

Indeed, the scandal is hardly the first involving burning of the Quran. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates, was so worried about the fallout from a Florida pastor's plans to burn the Quran that, in 2010, he took the extraordinary step of calling him personally to try to talk him out of it.

That only bought time. In April of last year, the pastor went ahead and supervised the burning of the book in Florida, triggering days of protests in Afghanistan in which some two dozen people were killed, including seven UN staff.

The unrest appears to add to the US military's challenges in Afghanistan, which commanders are trying to stabilize ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of most American combat forces by the end of 2014. 

Washington is also trying to negotiate a security pact with Afghanistan to govern the presence of US troops beyond that date and foster long-shot Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.

After the Marine urination video surfaced, the Taliban said it would not harm nascent efforts to broker peace talks. It was unclear whether the latest incident would be any more of a deal-breaker.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and White House official who chaired Obama's 2009 review of Afghan policy, said he doubted the Taliban would forgo reconciliation efforts because of the Quran burning.

2012-02-24

Muhabir: Phil Stewart