A video that appears to show 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.
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.
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.