An Oct. 21 article about the alleged desecration of Taliban fighters' bodies in Afghanistan incorrectly referred to military spokesman Jim Yonts as an Army lieutenant colonel. His rank is colonel. (Published 10/22/2005)
The senior U.S. operational commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, flew to the southern city of Kandahar yesterday to confer with officers about the alleged burning of two Taliban fighters by U.S. soldiers in the area as the Bush administration moved to try to limit the damage from the reported incident.
Fearing a Muslim backlash against television images of the apparent desecration, the State Department sent U.S. embassies instructions "to engage on this issue" and to stress that the pictures do not reflect U.S. values or the actions of "the vast majority" of the U.S. military, said spokesman Sean McCormack.
Specialists in U.S.-Muslim relations warned that the alleged incident could deepen hostility against the United States and further damage an American image already tarnished by scandals over mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"If true, the incident would fit a seeming pattern that has emerged of the U.S. military gaining enough knowledge of Islamic culture and sensitivities to devise ways of offending Muslims," said Khaled Abu el Fadl, a specialist in Islamic law at UCLA law school.
The latest scandal surfaced Wednesday when an Australian television network aired video showing members of a U.S. airborne unit purportedly setting fire to the Taliban bodies, followed by other soldiers, identified as specialists in psychological operations, using the event to taunt other enemy fighters and draw them out of nearby hills to retrieve the remains.
Military officials identified the soldiers involved in the burning as members of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The brigade has been in Afghanistan since March and has seen considerable combat in southern Afghanistan, where resistance from Taliban fighters remains significant.
The psychological operations specialists were identified as reservists from an Arkansas unit attached to the brigade.
Army Lt. Col. Jim Yonts, U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said he knew of no previous problems involving either the infantry soldiers or psychological operations troops, all of whom are now under criminal investigation.Cremation is shunned by Islamic custom, which calls for even the sinful to receive a proper burial. Several U.S. officers with experience in Afghanistan said normal U.S. military procedures involve either burying dead enemy fighters or handing bodies over to local representatives.
U.S. troops have blown up bodies as an act of self-defense, after discovering explosives on them, one officer said. At times, too, U.S. forces have laid ambushes near enemy dead to entrap others who return to collect the bodies, the officer said.
The alleged body burning near the village of Gonbaz would go well beyond these precedents. "It would be a violation of both military law and the Geneva Conventions, which list mistreatment of the dead as a war crime," said John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York.
According to the account broadcast by the program "Dateline" on Australia's SBS network, the U.S. airborne unit was ambushed the day before the burning. A battle left one American and one Afghan soldier dead, along with the two Taliban fighters. "Dateline" showed the U.S. soldiers searching Gonbaz for anyone associated with the militants and indicating frustration at the lack of cooperation from residents.
Stephen Dupont, the Australian journalist who took the video, said the airborne troops who burned the bodies indicated they had been ordered to do so purely to dispose of them.
"They said to me, 'We've been told to burn the bodies because the bodies have been here for 24 hours and they're starting to stink,' " Dupont said in an interview on the network's Web site. "So for hygiene purposes, this is what we've got to do."
It was later, he said, that the psychological operations team decided to use the event for propaganda purposes. "They deliberately wanted to incite that much anger from the Taliban, so the Taliban could attack them," he said.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.