Outrage in Afghanistan and shame in America emerged as another U.S. military atrocity surfaced to undermine the "hearts and minds" effort to secure Afghan support for what President Barack Obama once called the "right war." Both the Taliban and top U.S. officials voiced hopes the atrocity – U.S. Marines laughing and urinating on Afghan corpses – wouldn't wreck peace efforts aimed at ending the decade-long war.
A video that appears to show four marines defiling the bodies of men they had just killed went viral. In barely 24 hours, it was watched online by millions and inflamed anti-American passions in Afghanistan and across the Muslim world.
U.S. military investigators are attempting to identify the four marines and at least one other who took the video, and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta vowed to hold them accountable.
The video was apparently taken last year in Helmand in southern Afghanistan.
Two of the four marines have already been identified, according to unconfirmed military reports. They belong to a unit that returned to the Marine base at Camp Lejuene, N.C., last fall after a six-month Afghan deployment.
"I have seen the footage, and I find the behaviour depicted in it utterly deplorable. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms," Mr. Panetta said.
The revelation of what many will see as desecration of corpses came amid signs that the Obama administration is gaining traction with its diplomatic outreach to the Taliban.
"With respect to the implications of this, the United States remains strongly committed to helping build a secure, peaceful, prosperous, democratic future for the people of Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
She had earlier confirmed the possibility of releasing Taliban detainees held in Guantanamo, a long-standing Taliban demand, in order to kick-start talks once the Afghan insurgents follow through on their proposal to open an office in Qatar.
The Taliban reaction out of Afghanistan was muted. "This is not the first time we see such brutality," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters. He added that "the video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange."
But Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who led the outpouring of Afghan outrage and is ambivalent about U.S.-led talks with the Taliban, may use the incident to delay talks. "This act by American soldiers is completely inhumane and condemnable in the strongest possible terms," said the President, who rarely resorts to such strong language after Taliban atrocities.
Previous American military mistakes – especially air strikes that killed civilians – have sparked major, angry, anti-American demonstrations in the mountain-ringed capital and brought harsh denunciations from Mr. Karzai.
The Afghan President, whose frequent and unpredictable outbursts have soured relations with Mr. Obama, is in a bind. Railing angrily against foreign troops is popular among Afghans, but if the soldiers pulled out before their 2014 target date, Mr. Karzai's shaky and corrupt regime would likely collapse. And any negotiated peace with the Taliban that led to the removal of foreign troops could leave Mr. Karzai even more bereft of support among ordinary Afghans who fear a civil war.
One of Mr. Karzai's peace council advisers, Arsala Rahmani, said the graphic video will have a "very, very bad impact on peace efforts."
In Washington, full-blown damage control was under way as the cavalier comments of the urinating marines made their way onto the Internet.
"Have a nice day, buddy," one marine jokes as he stands above a bloodied corpse – presumably that of a Taliban fighter, although no weapons are visible in the video posted to YouTube.
"It clearly appears to be to us what it appears to be to you – troops urinating on corpses," a Pentagon spokesman admitted, even as the authenticity of the video, showing men wearing U.S. Marine uniforms and helmets, standing in a semi-circle and urinating and making jokes over the bloodied, barefooted bodies of three Afghan men, remained to be absolutely confirmed.
The latest 'abuse' video – while hardly matching the viciousness of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse in Iraq or detainee torture in Afghanistan – represents another grim setback to President Obama's strategy to twin punishing military tactics with massive development aid in Afghanistan. Since Mr. Obama took office, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan nearly tripled to more than 100,000. Many of those reinforcements replaced smaller Canadian and British contingents in the Taliban heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand, where years of limited counterinsurgency operations had failed to defeat the Taliban or win lasting support among ordinary Afghans.
The U.S. military has been dogged with occasional but reputation-wrecking atrocities. In recent months, a group of army soldiers have been on trial for the murder of unarmed Afghan civilians in Kandahar province in 2010. That case arose after pictures were published of soldiers posing with the mutilated corpse of an Afghan boy they had killed.
NATO, which runs the 130,000 foreign troops – including the few remaining Canadians – in Afghanistan denounced the atrocity. "This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces," the alliance said in a statement.
Even in a nation where only a tiny minority has access to the Internet, information and rumour about the images and the desecration will spread like wildfire in Afghanistan.
For President Obama, furor over the video could further complicate his ability to cope with overlapping crises in the region. Relations with Pakistan are at an all-time low due to relentless and widely resented U.S. drone strikes, particularly the recent 'friendly fire' killing of dozens of Pakistani border troops by American helicopter gunships.
Meanwhile, domestic support for the Afghan war – after more than a decade – has sagged. Mr. Obama has promised a hurried-up pullout timetable but there remains little evidence that Afghan forces are capable to replacing the more than 100,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan.