Pentagon Says Protests Will Not Alter Afghan Strategy

Posted February 27th, 2012 at 1:00 pm (UTC-5)
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U.S. defense officials are stressing that joint operations with Afghan security forces continue, despite days of protests and attacks on foreign troops that have left close to 40 people, including four Americans, dead.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes the “foundations of our strategy” in Afghanistan remain sound.

He also said the incidents will not weaken the close relationship the United States and its NATO allies have with Afghanistan's government and its security forces.

The protests and attacks were in response to news that U.S. troops inadvertently burned copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Media reports have said Qurans were being disposed of because of fears that prisoners at the base were using them to pass extremist messages.

Defense spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said that while U.S. troops working with Afghan forces are being more vigilant, that vigilance is not hampering operations. Two of the Americans killed were shot while working at the Interior Ministry in Kabul. Their attacker has not been arrested.

Kirby said the protests have dropped off sharply – from more than 20 a day last week, to just three on Monday. He spoke via video link from Kabul.

Kirby also said that a major operation, involving hundreds of Afghan and foreign troops, has just wrapped up in southern Afghanistan. He called it a successful mission to block Taliban rebels from mounting new attacks in the coming weeks as warm weather arrives.

The United States and its allies are beginning to shift away from a combat role against Taliban militants to an advisory one, with the goal of having foreign troops end combat operations by 2014.

President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and many other U.S. officials have apologized for the mishandling of the Quran and have vowed to make sure there will be no similar incidents.

Under Islamic tradition, old Qurans should be disposed of by wrapping them in cloth and burying them in a safe area, or by releasing the pages in flowing water. Burning is permitted, but only if it is done a prescribed, ceremonial manner.