The value of saying 'sorry'

Before gearing up for the next war, against Iraq, the Bush administration had better make sure it doesn't lose the last war, in Afghanistan. A struggling Karzai regime in Kabul is in shaky condition, caught between friendly and unfriendly fire.

The assassination of Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, the leading Pashtun in the coalition and the second Cabinet member to be killed, has sharpened the ethnic tensions that always threaten national unity. The American government can be of some assistance in beefing up security in Kabul and in helping in the hunt for the assassins by providing technical expertise.

There is not much America can do about Afghanistan's violent feuds. But what needs serious attention is how this superpower behaves about its own mistakes that hurt the people it is trying to befriend.

In the latest and most sanguinary in a series of accidental attacks on Afghan civilians, villagers in southern Afghanistan were devastated by what they charged was an air assault on a wedding party and nearby villages that left 48 persons dead and 117 wounded.

It took almost a week before Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, the allied commander, acknowledged that there were civilian casualties – no number mentioned – and that no ordnance was found in the area that would support the claim that US planes were responding to antiaircraft fire. The American command eventually announced a full-scale investigation.

But what have we come to when some Afghan citizens no longer talk of America as liberator, but as an enemy? And when General McNeill finds it necessary to say, "It is not a policy of this coalition to target innocents."

President Bush said he told Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the telephone, "Any time innocent life is lost, we're sad." Missing from the superpower lexicon of abstract regret is apology or acknowledgment of responsibility. Is the superpower too big to be accountable to peoples from less powerful nations?

A nonchalant attitude about the harm the US sometimes does to its friends in the developing world can have its price. As the Bush administration gears up for military action against Iraq, we are forced to ask how much support the United States will have from the opponents of Saddam Hussein within Iraq.

The Kurds would be a natural ally; they operate an autonomous mini-state in northern Iraq. But John Burns of The New York Times, on a trip to the area, found Kurdish leaders disinclined to join a US-led military campaign.

The Kurds have bitter memories of betrayal at the hands of the Americans. Once in the early 1970s, President Nixon had the CIA organize a Kurdish rebellion and then walked away from it for reasons of high policy, leaving hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee the wrath of the Iraqi government.

Then again in 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, President Bush the elder called for rebellion in Iraq. The Kurds responded with an uprising, received no military support, and were slaughtered by the thousands at the hands of Mr. Hussein's forces.

Neither the Afghans nor the Kurds are central to America's strategic concerns. But occasionally America needs a friend among the peoples who live along the front lines of troubled regions, and we are fast running out of them.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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