I just got off the set at the BBC’s Washington studio where I spoke with Tim Wilcox on the BBC World News Today about the video allegedly showing four U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Video of the segment is forthcoming, but here are some of the points I tried to get across in the fast-paced news segment: Update: See video of the segment here.
- The incident, which is the latest in a string of unfortunate events involving U.S. troops, is not likely to impact the negotiation efforts. The Taliban and President Karzai both said so.
- It is unlikely that this incident will lead to mass demonstrations in Afghanistan involving burning of American flags, etc. This is not the Terry Jones case.
- The incident will further damage America’s public perception in Afghanistan, but not uniformly across the country — the effect is going to be graver in parts already holding a stronger negative perception of the U.S.
- But here’s the main point: The U.S. and the rest of the world seem more outraged about the acts per se and about the unprofessional conduct. But the less appreciated fact is that in Afghanistan, desecration/defiling of dead bodies and urinating on people are culturally very significant offenses. This is an important point to understand because it is central to the efforts of winning hearts and minds.
And here are a couple of points I didn’t get to make on the segment, and that no one seems to be talking about either:
- After Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Bagram (here and here), the ‘kill team‘ and other incidents, the U.S. will need to seriously take notice of what is becoming a culture of gross abuse and misconduct in the military. Not everyone in the world shares the American perception that these are isolated acts from individual soldiers. The command and control structure seems to be failing, causing not only PR disasters for the U.S. but also human rights violations. All of this begs the question: Apart from ordering an investigation into this latest incident, what is the U.S. going to do to address what seems to be a larger scale institutional issue?
- This incident gives the Taliban more PR ammo, but not in the way you might think: The Taliban like to circulate videos of their fighters ambushing foreign troops and blowing up their convoys; advertising the humiliation of Taliban jihadists doesn’t make great cell phone viral video. And it just doesn’t help with the recruitment drives. Having said that, the incident does give the Taliban more PR salvo in their attempts to portray U.S. troops in a bad light.