Written by Roxanne Bauer
Afghans and, indeed, Muslims throughout the world are protesting for a sixth day the recent and unintentional burning of Qur’an at the US’ largest base in Afghanistan. Despite a direct apology from President Obama to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, more than 30 people have been killed in the protests, including two American officials, and hundreds more are injured. As a result, commander of NATO and US forces, General John Allen, recalled NATO personnel from the ministries in Kabul and also promised a quick and decisive investigation of the incident.
While initial investigations indicate that local forces recognized the type of material in the pile set for burning and intervened, the disposal process demonstrates that the Qur’an could have been burned.
In a war that seemingly has no end and relies heavily on endearing positive popular opinion, this incident may prove to be pivotal. The possibility that Western forces may have incinerated Qur’an reinforces the premise that the US and NATO forces do not respect Afghan or Muslim traditions and adds fire to other recent events like the video showing US soldiers urinating on dead Taliban soldiers. It also provides an opening for the Taliban and other organizations that wish to provoke conflict for their benefit.
Eventually, the protests will stop. However, one wonders how long the Afghans will remember that foreign troops desecrated their holy book. In the battle over perceptions, the US needs to start living by the standards it professes to engender the kind of goodwill it hopes for.
This could start with more serious language and culture courses for troops. It seems obvious to say, but the whole mess could have been avoided if just one NATO troop had been able to read the words “Qur’an” in Arabic and remove the books from the pile. It is not necessary that this soldier be able to read the entirety of the book or understand the subtle nuances of the language. It would only have been necessary to recognize what the word Qur’an looks like written in Arabic and to understand the cultural and religious significance of burning the books. Proper language instruction and cultural sensitivity could have stopped all the anger and heartache.
The National Priorities Project, which operates the website, costofwar.com, estimates that the war in Afghanistan has already cost the US Government more than
$504, 983, 900,000.00 so far. Considering all this money, it is questionable that US and NATO troops are not trained with more adeptness or in greater numbers in local languages and Arabic in order to communicate with local publics.
In August of 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that:
Languages are the key to understanding that world… If we are going to advance stability in some of the countries we are fighting in today, we have to be able to understand what motivates those countries, what motivates their people, and to understand their culture, beliefs, faiths, ideologies, hatreds, and loves.
Clearly, Panetta understood the importance of language, but, despite numerous reports from the Department of Defense, language skills continue to be a problem. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a May 2011 report that the Army’s low standard of one leader per platoon to have “memorized proficiency” in the local language with the goal of “elementary proficiency” was inadequate. Additionally, the Army’s requirement that all troops ordered to Afghanistan take a 4-6 hour training program for language and culture and the Marine’s requirement of a two-day course for troops ordered to Afghanistan are insufficient and not undertaken with the seriousness required to produce troops that fully understand the gravity and import of language and culture in the region.
Sadly, this latest incident and the military’s inability to cope only prove how crucial public diplomacy is and will continue to be. Language, and all the gifts that it provides, is as crucial a tool as artillery or armor. Language skills also need to be complemented with cultural sensitivity courses that impart the thoughtfulness that US and NATO troops should exercise in their activities.