Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan
The New York Times
By GRAHAM BOWLEY and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
January 12, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan —
A video showing four United States Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters provoked anger and condemnation on Thursday in Afghanistan and around the world, raising fears in Washington that the images could incite anti-American sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the decade-old Afghan war.
A still image from a video posted online that appeared to show Marines urinating on dead bodies.
Against Odds, Path Opens Up for U.S.-Taliban Talks (January 12, 2012)
The Obama administration is struggling to keep the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, on its side as it carefully tries to open talks with the Taliban. Yet the video showing such a desecration — a possible war crime — is likely to weaken the American position with both. The Taliban and Mr. Karzai each pointed to the images as evidence of American brutality, a message with broad appeal in Afghanistan, where word of the video was slowly spreading on Thursday.
Senior military officials in Kabul and at the Pentagon confirmed that the video was authentic and that they had identified the Marines as members of the Third Battalion, Second Marines, which completed a tour of Afghanistan this fall before returning to its base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The officials did not release the Marines’ names but said one wore a corporal’s uniform.
Pentagon officials said the video had been made between March and September 2011, when the Marine battalion was stationed in Helmand Province, a strategic Taliban heartland and a center of the opium poppy trade. The officials said that they did not know the precise location shown in the video but that it had probably been made in the northern part of the province, where the battalion had been operating. Seven of the approximately 1,000 Marines in the battalion were killed during the seven-month deployment.
Pentagon officials said that as far as they knew, all four Marines were still on active duty.
Even before the authenticity of the video had been confirmed, expressions of outrage and contrition by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials left no doubt that they regarded it as real.
Aware of the inflammatory potential, Mr. Panetta telephoned Mr. Karzai to assure him that an investigation was under way and that those responsible would be punished. Mr. Panetta told the Afghan leader that “the conduct depicted in the footage is utterly deplorable, and that it does not reflect the standards or values American troops are sworn to uphold,” said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman.
The video showed the four Marines, in their distinctive sand-colored camouflage, urinating over the three bodies — one covered in blood. One Marine says, “Have a great day, buddy.”
The Taliban initially indicated that the video would not undermine the push toward talks, saying that they saw it as just more evidence of what they said was American brutality and arrogance.
But later on Thursday, in an official statement, the Taliban dropped references to the talks and emphasized the brutality message. “We strongly condemn the inhuman act of wild American soldiers, as ever, and consider this act in contradiction with all human and ethical norms,” the statement said.
Mr. Karzai said that he was deeply disturbed and that he had asked the Americans to punish the perpetrators severely. “This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
American officials reacted remorsefully throughout the day on Thursday in their damage-control effort. The American-led coalition in Afghanistan and the United States Embassy in Kabul offered separate condemnations. Coalition officials said in a statement that the behavior displayed in the video “dishonors the sacrifices and core values of every service member representing the 50 nations of the coalition.”
Mrs. Clinton expressed what she called “total dismay.”
“It is absolutely inconsistent with American values and the standards we expect from our military personnel,” she said in Washington, adding that anyone involved “must be held fully accountable.”
Mr. Panetta said in Washington that he had ordered the Marines and Gen. John R. Allen, a Marine Corps officer who commands coalition forces in Afghanistan, to investigate immediately.
The video, posted on public video-sharing Web sites including LiveLeak and YouTube, began ricocheting around international news Web sites on Wednesday.
Whether the American condemnations will mollify the anger of Afghans remains unclear. But for those who had seen the video, the images appeared to deepen their dislike of the United States, which is widely seen as an occupier here.
“The Taliban sometimes commit such harsh acts, but it was enough just to kill them and not to degrade or humiliate their dead bodies,” said Jawad, a university student in Kabul who gave only one name.
Hajji Ahmad Fareed, a former member of Parliament, said the images confirmed to him that America was against Islam. The Americans “will never be friends with us and never bring peace,” he said. Americans have urinated “on our holy Koran,” he said, and have now done so “on the bodies of our Muslims.”
Mr. Fareed was referring to an erroneous report in Newsweek in 2005 that American soldiers at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had thrown a Koran into a toilet. The report prompted protests and riots in many parts of the Muslim world. The worst was in Afghanistan, where at least 17 people were killed.
Last year, protests erupted in Afghanistan over the burning of a Koran at a Florida church. Several people were killed, including seven United Nations staff members in Mazar-i-Sharif.
American officials in Afghanistan have also struggled to overcome the fallout from a rogue group of American soldiers who in 2010 killed three Afghan civilians for sport in a series of crimes. The soldier accused of being the ringleader of the group, whose members patrolled roads and small villages near Kandahar, was convicted of three counts of murder by an American military panel in November.
The actions of the Marines in the video could amount to a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require that the bodies of those killed in war be treated honorably.
While the images largely dominated the news in Afghanistan on Thursday, the Taliban’s campaign of assassinations continued when a suicide car bomber killed the governor of a district in the southern province of Kandahar.
The district governor, Said Fazluddin Agha, was riding home after work when his armored vehicle was hit by an attacker in a Suzuki packed with explosives, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. Two of his sons were also killed, and nine police officers and one civilian were wounded. Mr. Agha was the target of an assassination attempt two years ago.
Correction: January 12, 2012
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Reporting was contributed by Elisabeth Bumiller and John H. Cushman Jr. from Washington; Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul; an employee of The New York Times from Kandahar, Afghanistan; and J. David Goodman from New York.