A 39-second video purporting to show Marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan is straining US-Afghan relations but is not expected to undo months of work aimed at brokering peace with the Taliban.
The images have not sparked widespread anti-US protests and Afghan officials say one battlefield abuse cannot derail the peace process, which has gained momentum in recent months with news that the Taliban will open a political office in Qatar.
US military officials have sternly condemned the alleged acts of four Marines who appear to be desecrating the bodies of three men lying in the dirt. On the video, which appeared on YouTube on Wednesday, one of the men looks down
at the bodies and gleefully quips, "Have a good day, buddy."
The video emerged at a delicate time in relations among the United States, Afghanistan's elected government and the Taliban insurgency. The US is trying to foster peace talks between President Hamid Karzai's government and the Taliban. Recent statements by senior US and Taliban officials suggest the possibility of some trust-building measures in the near future, such as the opening of the Taliban office and the transfer of some Taliban detainees out of the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Relations with Karzai have been shaky, and the two nations have yet to sign a long-term partnership agreement that will govern the presence of US troops in the country after 2014 when most foreign troops will have gone home or moved into support roles.
Initially there were concerns that outrage over the issue would spiral into a scandal like the one in 2004 over the release of photos showing a group of US military police abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Violent protests broke out across Afghanistan after a Florida pastor burned a Quran in March 2011, fueling the down-with-America sentiment already simmering in Afghan society. In one protest in April 2011, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and overran a UN compound, killing three U.N. staff members and four Nepalese guards.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has promised an exhaustive investigation, expressed concern that the fragile peace effort could be jeopardized by the images that he described as "utterly deplorable."
"The danger is that this kind of video can be misused in many ways to undermine what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and the possibility of reconciliation," Panetta said.
But Afghan officials and others said the quick responses by all sides had helped contain the damage.
"As all three sides” the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban” have all condemned this act, I'm hopeful that this will not have any effect on the peace process," Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a member of the peace council and the Taliban's former envoy to the United Nations, said Saturday.
Still, the incident makes it harder for US-led coalition troops to gain the trust of Afghan villagers as they try to secure gains on the battlefield, and it gives Karzai more leeway to balk at US demands on critical war issues, including negotiations on the partnership agreement.
Arsala Rahmani, a top member of the Afghanistan peace council and an ex-official in the former Taliban government, said the move to open the office in Qatar remained on track, although any actual negotiations could take place in Saudi Arabia. Rahmani also said that a delegation from a Taliban-affiliated group run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar recently visited Kabul to discuss reconciliation.
The video "will not affect the peace process at all," he said. The Taliban agreed.
"Reconciliation is a big change for the people of Afghanistan and it won't be affected by the actions of individuals like those in the video," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press on Friday. "We are focused on the bigger picture and for that, we have to avoid small things."
Andrew Exum, who was a civilian adviser to former Gen. Stanley McChrystal when he was leading U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, noted that Afghan security forces have already started taking charge from foreign troops who are slated to end their combat mission in 2014.
"The die has already been cast, to a degree, in Afghanistan," he said. "The plan for transition and the negotiations are going forward, and it is hard to imagine this video changing any of that."
While the video hurts America's image in the Islamic world, it will end up as a footnote in the history of the Afghan war, he said.
"The broader US-led campaign in Afghanistan over the past 10 years is what will overshadow all US-Afghan relations for the next several generations," said Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. "This one video matters little in the grand scheme of things."
Some Afghans think the ongoing fragile reconciliation discussions prompted Taliban or Afghan government officials to work behind-the-scenes to tamp down any public outrage.
Others suspect that the lack of access to the Web in Afghanistan or the prompt condemnation by the United States accounted for the mild response. Still others claim the Afghan media did not hype the story and that, in most cases, reported that the video depicted US troops being disrespectful to Afghan corpses but avoided using the word "urinate," which is considered a shameful term in the local language.
The act, however, lends credence to the views of Afghans who are already skeptical of America's interests in Afghanistan.
"This is not a good thing coming from NATO forces, especially at a time when both parties are busy in negotiations," said Abdul Salam Ayubi, a shopkeeper in Lashkar Gah in southern Helmand province. "If the Americans want real negotiations, they should investigate this video and monitor their forces so this is not repeated."
Dost Mohammad, a businessman in Kandahar, called the video shameful and said the US needs to punish those involved.
"The people of Afghanistan will not accept this kind of thing and it will create more distance between NATO and the Afghan people," Mohammad said. "The Americans must react to this so that the Afghan people don't lose faith in them and in the process of negotiation."