Earlier I took a look at how negotiations in Afghanistan on a long-term military agreement were breaking down because of resistance to night raids by US forces and US-run prisons. Associated to that is the fact that Afghans and Pakistanis, like most people I assume, don’t particularly like it when you kill their citizens and desecrate their most sacred rituals, no matter how much you apologize. One such apology caught my eye today. The US and NATO apologized for inadvertently burning Korans at one of their air bases:

US and Nato forces have rushed to apologise for discarding and possibly burning copies of the Qur’an, as thousands of furious Afghans gathered to protest outside Bagram military airbase.

Some carried ancient hunting rifles and others used slingshots to pelt the outer walls of the airbase with stones for several hours, despite the bitter cold, shouting “down with America” and other slogans.

The crowd swelled to as much as three thousand, and police stationed on roads leading to the base turned back other would-be protesters from further away, according to General Mohammad Akram Bekzad, Parwan province’s police chief.

NATO ended up firing rubber bullets into the crowd to disperse them, another tactic that’s sure to win hearts and minds.

This is at least the fourth incident I can think of in Afghanistan of desecration of the Koran. In this case, holy books taken from prisoners at Bagram mistakenly went to the incinerator, as it’s customary to burn waste on the base. Afghan workers intervened and stopped most of the burning, but at least some pages of the Koran were singed. And as a result, 3,000 Afghans protested outside the base.

Generals can apologize as profusely as they want, but the issue has less to do with Koran desecration as it does a loss of control. The whole concept of “winning hearts and minds” given the unequal power relationship between the US and NATO forces and the Afghan civilian population is totally misguided. Kevin Drum writes:

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.

It’s a i worse than that, in my view. American military operations don’t win hearts and minds simply because of the structure of the power relationship. People don’t actually like having their country occupied by a foreign force for years. That’s really all there is to this.