The Politics of Apology: Obama Must Say 'Sorry' to Afghanistan and Pakistan

The importance of preserving ties with Kabul and Islamabad should trump domestic U.S. politics.

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Pakistani protesters at an anti-U.S. rally in Pakistan / Reuters

The killing of two U.S. military officers by a gunman inside Afghanistan's heavily guarded Interior Ministry on Saturday, part of an explosion of anti-American violence that has continued unabated despite a U.S. apology over the burning of Korans by U.S. troops, has complicated President Obama's plans to accelerate the NATO troop withdrawal and hand some operations over to the new Afghan army by mid-2013.

The challenge facing Obama is even more difficult, both strategically and politically, because his administration is preparing another apology to neighboring Pakistan over the errant NATO strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last fall. This statement was to have been delivered shortly by high-ranking U.S. military and civilian officials, most likely by Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two U.S. officials told National Journal

The anti-American protests in Kabul have raged since early last week, when it was first reported that Korans and other religious materials had been thrown into a pit used to burn garbage at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul. At least 25 people have been killed, including two other U.S. soldiers. A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul told National Journal that the violence would not set back plans to begin handing over security to Afghan forces, despite the decision by Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. forces, to withdraw all NATO personnel from government ministries after the shootings on Saturday. Allen had previously apologized for the burning of the Korans.

"I don't think there's any discussion about this affecting transition," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Frankly our position is this was a careless act, but we've already apologized for it and we want to move on."

Whether the planned transition in Afghanistan is affected or not, the apologies over the Koran incident and the NATO strikes pose some political peril for Obama at home in an election year. Republican presidential candidates have been regularly accusing Obama of appeasement and, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has put it, "apologizing for America."

On Thursday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who has grown increasingly immoderate in his statements as he has faded in the polls, called the U.S. apology to Afghan authorities over the burned Korans "astonishing'' and undeserved. Other Republicans have not joined in the criticism as yet. Neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum's campaigns responded to requests from National Journal for comment on the killings of the officers on Saturday -- underscoring not only the distance those campaigns have put between their operations and Gingrich's but their reluctance to wade into the snarled issue of U.S.-NATO operations in Afghanistan.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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