KABUL - Photographs of US troops abusing corpses, coming on top of a series of outrages this year, are likely to fuel anti-US anger in Afghanistan – and a desire in NATO countries to get out of an unpopular war.
Taliban insurgents, as always, seized on the latest scandal – exposed by the Los Angeles Times – to condemn the “brutal and inhuman act by the American invading forces” and vowed revenge.
There was also some anger on the streets of Kabul, but mass anti-US protests are seen as unlikely and the biggest effect of the pictures may be in NATO countries, where polls show the long war is increasingly viewed with distaste.
“In the West there was this strong idea that of course the troops came to fight terrorism but also came to help and to rebuild the country,” said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysts’ Network.
“Incidents like this will feed into feelings at home of ‘What are we doing here?’,” she told AFP.
For the Afghans, “it does confirm how people increasingly feel about the international and US troops – that ‘they don’t really care about us, that they don’t treat us with respect.”
Every month this year a fresh scandal has rocked the alliance between the US and the government of President Hamid Karzai in their joint efforts against Taliban insurgents.
In January, a video showed US Marines urinating on Taliban corpses; in February US soldiers burned copies of the Koran; and in March a US soldier went on the rampage and murdered 17 villagers in their homes.
Now the Los Angeles Times has published pictures taken in 2010 showing soldiers posing with insurgents’ bodies, one with a dead man’s hand draped on his shoulder.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said those responsible would be punished but voiced “regret” that the newspaper had published the images against the Pentagon’s wishes, warning that they could prompt a violent backlash.
“The US soldiers who posed for pictures with the Afghan insurgents show that they didn’t come to Afghanistan to deliver services for us,” said Obaidullah, 20, an unemployed high-school graduate in Kabul.
“Instead such actions will force Afghans to rise against them.”
But an immediate violent response by ordinary Afghans was seen as unlikely.
“We have had too many of these incidents recently where there’s been questions about US troops morality and ethics... but it doesn’t necessarily mean we will see riots on the streets,” said Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group.
“However, time will tell – I think we have to wait until after Friday prayers to really see what kind of impact these images have had,” she said, referring to the time of the week when citizens pour out of mosques.
More such incidents could be expected as NATO prepares to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 after a war that has already lasted more than a decade, she said.
“I think it is becoming increasingly clear, for the US soldiers in particular who’ve been through so many tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, that they are extremely worn down and that the morale internally is not so fantastic.”
Incidents such as the massacre, the Koran burning and the desecration of bodies raised questions about US President Barack Obama’s “initial claims that this was the just war, this was the necessary war", she said.
But she pointed out that they did not characterise the whole of the US military.
“There will always be incidents when violence in the extreme is encountered on both sides, whether it is in this case (US) soldiers desecrating bodies or in another other case Taliban soldiers taking pictures of beheadings.
“This is just a natural part of war.”