U.S. response to Koran burning could fan flames, analysts warn

As protests rage across Afghanistan for the third day in response to the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base, some are questioning whether the parade of apologies from the U.S. government may do more harm than good.

The latest installment came Thursday, when the U.S. ambassador delivered an apology letter from President Obama to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That follows apologies from Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen, the White House, NATO's International Security Assistance Force and other Pentagon officials.

The backlash began after Korans were burned with garbage at a military base in Afghanistan. Officials said they were removed from the detention center library because the detainees were using them to pass secret and what were described as "extremist" messages to one another. Afghans stepped in to rescue the books, though some were already burned. One official said it was a "breakdown in judgment, not a breakdown in our respect for Islam."

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen people have died in the aftermath, including two U.S. troops. And some analysts are criticizing the U.S. response.

"It just feeds the sense of grievance," Nina Shea, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, said of the "constant round of apologies."

Shea, who sits on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, agreed with the U.S. decision to quickly apologize after the incident late Monday and order an investigation.

But she noted that the subsequent apologies "don't seem to have any effect."

Obama's letter on Thursday reportedly apologized for the "error" and assured Karzai that the U.S. government would take "appropriate steps" to make sure such an incident doesn't happen again, "to include holding accountable those responsible."

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an Army Reserve officer who served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004, concurred that the burning was "patently stupid" -- not just because it's religiously insensitive but because the messages inside the Korans by detainees could have been used for intelligence purposes.

"These are all threads. These things are threads that can be used to build that tapestry of an intelligence picture," Shaffer said.

But Shaffer said for the U.S. government to repeatedly apologize for the incident is only helping the Taliban.

"They will use that to again flame their own fire," he said. "The more they apologize, the more it's going to inflame them."

At a time when the U.S. is trying to engage elements of the Taliban in peace talks, Shaffer said the apologies just strengthen the Taliban's negotiating position.

Shaffer and Shea said the U.S. should be urging Taliban officials who want to play ball in the broader talks to call off the protests to the extent they can.

Shea said the burning has been inevitably exploited for political purposes. She also said this incident should compel the U.S. to reconsider the decision to provide Korans at prisons in the first place -- since mistakes are bound to happen when Westerners handle them, with deadly results.

"It's a very tricky business, providing Korans to prisoners of war," she said. "It becomes unmanageable."

But Ahmad Majidyar, senior research associate with the American Enterprise Institute, said the U.S. is taking the right approach by stressing the sincerity of its remorse. And he suggested the protests are not as widespread as they're made out to be.

"Many other people, they accepted the apology by the Americans ... and they're just moving on with their lives," he said.

The test, Majidyar said, will be Friday sermons. Fiery sermons, he warned, could lead to more violence -- he urged the United States to go beyond apologies and make sure it's reaching out to all corners of Afghan society to calm down the backlash and avoid that outcome.

Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, also said in an email that the Obama administration dealt with the mistake "appropriately," and described the president's letter as a "sincere demonstration of respect for the Afghan people and their religious sentiments."

Going forward, she called on Karzai to try and calm the protests and "expose" the Taliban's role in "exploiting the situation."

The incident follows protests last April over a Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Koran. Afghans stormed a U.N. compound at the height of the clash, killing several employees.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Thursday said the president's latest response via the Karzai letter was entirely appropriate due to the sensitivities involved.