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We need to do better; Continual missteps in Afghanistan putting the entire mission at risk

Don't we know better than this yet? The United States stumbled into Middle East warfare when President George W. Bush pronounced our mission there a "crusade."

In the 10-plus years we have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have had more than enough time to learn about cultural sensitivities and the ease with which foolish actions can undermine both our goals in that region and the safety of our troops. Yet we keep blundering on.

A few weeks ago, it was Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban members. Then it was a photograph of Marines posing with a flag whose logo resembled that of the Nazi SS. Now, worst of all, it's U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan burning copies of the Quran, Islam's holy book.

The outrage by Afghans was predictable, though the murders were not. On Thursday, a man wearing an Afghan army uniform shot two American troops in eastern Afghanistan. On Saturday, two high-ranking NATO officers were killed by an Afghan security official. The event and the response threaten to undermine plans for small teams of advisers to work with Afghan partners as combat teams withdraw.

We are acting more like a conquering army than a nation hoping to build a stable government before leaving. It's true that some of these bad decisions were made by young men whose actions might be assigned to their youth. But training and discipline are supposed to help avoid these kinds of problems, not ensure that they occur one after another.

It is urgent that American leaders in Afghanistan get a grip on this problem. No one expects perfection, but we have invested more than 10 years in Afghanistan at a cost of nearly 2,000 American lives and more than half a trillion dollars. That investment may go to waste if the level of mistrust between Afghans and Americans is such that our only choice is to withdraw completely, without even a corps of advisers left behind to help.

Predictably, if absurdly, this problem has inserted itself into this country's presidential campaign. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., evidently determined to show why he should never be president, criticized President Obama, not for the burning of the Qurans by the troops he leads, but for apologizing to Afghans for the offense to their religion.

Although it was a mistake, Santorum said on Sunday that Obama should not have apologized for it. Reading straight out of the fringe-right playbook, Santorum said the apology suggests blame and "shows weakness" on the part of the United States. In fact, it does neither, but such are the beliefs of this tea party pol and the desperation of his campaign.

It is important for the administration to try to stabilize what has become a volatile situation in Afghanistan. An apology for offensive behavior is both appropriate and even urgent. It may or may not help to ease tensions in Afghanistan, but after 10 years of fighting, only a politician looking to manipulate voters in the days before a critical primary would think of suggesting weakness on the part of the United States.

The important matter here is not Santorum's poor judgment, but the need to get our work in Afghanistan back on track. It is imperative that the country not become a training ground for terrorists again. Obama needs to be sure his commanders are sending the message that the kind of lapses that have plagued our efforts there must not be repeated.