Treading a fine line between the nuances of foreign policy and the compulsions of domestic politics, the Obama administration has imposed the lightest possible punitive action against seven members of the U.S. armed forces implicated in the February 2012 Koran-burning incident near Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
A joint investigation conducted by the U.S. and Afghan military officials in March concluded that there was no intent to desecrate the religious materials even though it admitted that mistakes had been made. Yet the incident sparked off the worst riots in Afghanistan in recent times, in which at least half a dozen U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans were killed.
This week officials speaking to media on the condition of anonymity said that the punishments recommended in a classified by military investigators could range from a letter of reprimand to loss of pay. However, it appeared that the recommendations, which were said to have been approved by General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, would not include criminal charges.
On February 22 copies of the Koran and other Islamic books taken from the Parwan Detention Facility were discovered by Afghan workers in the smouldering remains of a burn pit nearby. At the time officials hinted that the materials had been “inadvertently” incinerated after alleged suspicions that “Taliban prisoners were using the books to pass messages to each other.”
As word of the burning Korans spread, spiralling violence touched six or more provinces in Afghanistan, despite President Barack Obama issuing a contrite apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in which he said, “I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident. I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.” In addition NATO was said to have incorporated new training for its forces on the proper handling of religious materials.
Even as Mr. Obama promised Afghans that the U.S. would “take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, including holding accountable those responsible,” he was repeatedly attacked for his apology by Republican opponents back home.
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and erstwhile candidate in the Republican presidential nomination race, said, “It is an outrage that President Obama is the one apologising to Afghan President Karzai on the same day two American troops were murdered and four others injured by an Afghan soldier.”
The relatively light punishments levied on the soldiers involved are likely to blunt the edge of any further domestic criticism that Mr. Obama may face in debates on foreign policy in the lead-up to the November presidential elections.
The DoD’s action in leaking details about the administrative punishments imposed flouts the administration’s normal practice, which is to not disclose such details publicly. Especially given that a final decision in the process could be weeks away, this has fuelled suspicion that domestic political imperatives may have been factor in consideration.