Protecting the Integrity of American Troops in Afghanistan

Rare acts of outrageous behavior on the part of some soldiers cannot stain the reputation of all fighting men.

A Special Forces soldier in the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan February 25, 2010
A Special Forces soldier in the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan February 25, 2010 (USAF/Staff Sergeant Nicholas Pilch)

American and NATO forces in Afghanistan have enough to deal with as is but a video that surfaced a few days ago of US Marines urinating on three dead Taliban militants — the men joking and laughing as they did — will only make the job of pacifying the country that much more difficult.

On top of bomb blasts, IED attacks straddled along major roadways and ambushes during neighborhood patrols, the soldiers that are now operating in Taliban infested areas will very likely be faced with an uptick in violence in response to the video.

Even more disparaging, the Afghan people who have either seen or heard of the tape, the very people that NATO has been trying to court for the past two years, could very well start distancing themselves from the war effort.

The video has yet to be fully authenticated but Pentagon officials say they have no reason to believe that it is a farce. Senior American officials have certainly been acting as if the video was real. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have issued press statements and interviews strongly condemning the actions of the individual Marines.

In a joint press meeting with Algeria’s foreign minister, Secretary Clinton said she joined Secretary Panetta in “condemning the deplorable behavior that is reflected in this video.”

It is absolutely inconsistent with American values, with the standards of behavior that we expect from our military personnel and the vast, vast majority of our military personnel, particularly our Marines, hold themselves to.

Both officials have been frantically telephoning their Afghan counterparts. Panetta called President Hamid Karzai to reassure him that the United States military will spare no effort in investigating why the soldiers in the video did what they did; who those soldiers are; and what type of punishment fits their misconduct.

Marine Commandant General James Amos has ordered the Naval Criminal Investigative Services and the Marine Corps to look into the matter as diligently and thoughtfully as they can.

The United States clearly understand that this incident is extremely serious and that if not handled properly, could have a lasting impact on not only Afghans but Muslims around the world.

Sadly, the urination video is not an anomaly or the first of its kind. The American military has been embarrassed a number of times over the last ten years of war, not only in Afghanistan but in Iraq.

The most graphic and publicized case was back in 2004 when CBS News aired dozens of disturbing photographs depicting American military policemen posing in the front of naked and humiliated Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison facility.

In 2006, Time magazine ran a story about a band of Marines from Kilo Company that shot and killed 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha without inquiring whether any of those individuals were belligerents. The casualties included unarmed women and children.

In 2010, Rolling Stone broke a controversial story describing a rogue American unit in Afghanistan where some of its soldiers hunted Afghan civilians for sport. Photographs of the accused troops smiling next to the dead Afghans accompanied the publication’s version of events.

The “vast, vast” majority, as Secretary Clinton put it, of American armed forces personnel operating in Afghanistan and other warzones is professional, disciplined, brave and caring — not only caring deeply for their country but for the people who are entrusted in their area of operation. This must be remembered especially when something terrible like Abu Ghraib happens under America’s watch.

One hopes that the perpetrators of this video are brought to some kind of justice, if not for the sake of justice itself then for the health of the war effort which relies on gaining the trust of the people and host government the American troops are fighting for. But as the inquires are launched and the final judgments made, it must also be recognized that the unethical or illegal acts of a few soldiers do not tinge the character of the entire service. If that were the case, the morale of the enemy would be reinforced and the heroism of people who choose to answer their nation’s call to arms unjustly tainted.

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