On March 20, a Florida pastor burned one copy of the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

On March 25, two Christians were killed in Hyderabad, Pakistan, when a church there was burned in retaliation.

On April 1, a crowd in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, attacked a United Nations office and killed at least 10 people. None was American. The crowd had chanted “Death to America,” but attacked the U.N. facilities when it could not find any Americans.

What can be learned from these events?

What happened in Florida was hateful and outrageous, all the more so because the pastor had good reason to believe that his action could endanger Americans in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Supreme Court had just recently confirmed that the First Amendment of the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech, allows the kind of odious action that took place in Florida. This was no liberal decision; eight of the nine justices supported the opinion written by the chief justice.

So burning the Quran was not illegal, even though it was hateful and inconsistent with American values. And it was the act of one man. Though not banned by law, it was not an official or approved action.

What happened in Pakistan, a country now reported to be deeply infiltrated by Taliban fighters from Afghanistan, was a clear case of guilt by association. The government, our supposed ally, cannot seem to prevent such terrible acts, and some in its agencies may condone them.

What happened in Afghanistan was irrational. People were killed because they were foreigners and available. Four of them were Asians, but that did not matter to the crowd. Their only association with Americans was that, like the U.S. forces, they were there to help.

The attack and ongoing demonstrations in Afghanistan are tangible proof that American policy in that country has failed. After almost 10 years of trying, the United States be unable to create a political system capable of controlling the Taliban or keeping the peace.

And, in their reaction to the Quran burning, people in Afghanistan seem to believe that America is as lacking in the rule of law as is their own country.

Will the United States come to understand that it cannot determine the fate of Afghanistan, a place that has never been more than a collection of warlord-controlled territories?

Despite the American presence there, the central government is corrupt, and elections are rigged. The government, with American forbearance, is now talking about a deal with the Taliban, whose removal was one of the two main reasons for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

The other reason for the American intervention there was the defeat of al-Qaida, which had used the Taliban haven as its main base for attacks on the United States and others. Now, far from being wiped out, al-Qaida is operating from neighboring Pakistan and from Yemen.

U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan is slated to end in 2014, some 13 years after it began. There’s no certainty, however, that U.S. forces won’t still be needed there, just as in Korea, where Americans have been for 60 years. We need a better plan.

We need to cut the cost, beginning with the cost in American lives. Just last week, more flag-draped coffins of American service personnel arrived back in the United States.

Is this war worth that cost?

This week, Washington is waging the battle of the budget. Both parties would cut spending. Outlays for Afghanistan, however, are immune from any reductions, while programs directly benefiting Americans will be slashed.

If Medicare and Social Security can be put on the block, so should Afghanistan.

Revising American policy in Afghanistan should not mean abandoning the country. It does mean that we should drop efforts to make Afghanistan into an American-style republic or even a modern state with a responsible central government.

There is general agreement that the greater problem is now Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and faces a Taliban threat. American military resources in the region should depend less on this unreliable ally and be more prepared to treat it as the shelter for forces clearly hostile to American interests.

American forces should remain in the region, including some on the ground, to deal with the resurgence of al-Qaida. Using drones and mobile units, the United States should strike against al-Qaida no matter what the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan say.

Last week’s lessons and the budget crisis leave no doubt about the need for a new American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

Gordon L. Weil, a weekly columnist for this newspaper, is an author, publisher, consultant and former international organization, U.S. and Maine government official.


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