KABUL — A senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan apologized Wednesday for propaganda leaflets that superimposed a key Islamic text on the image of a dog.
The leaflets distributed by U.S. forces in Parwan province, north of Kabul, on Tuesday depicted a lion, representing the U.S.-led coalition, chasing a dog with a section of the Taliban's banner, containing a passage from the Koran in Arabic, superimposed on its side.
Linking Islamic texts and religious beliefs with animals is a sensitive matter in the Islamic world, including Afghanistan, a country where the United States is fighting its longest anti-Islamist war and that has been the scene of bloody protests over religious issues.
Dogs are particularly offensive.
In Afghan society, many people are culturally and religiously sensitive to the issue of dogs. The animals generally are considered unclean, diseased and dangerous, and a common Afghan proverb says that if a dog is in your home, angels will not cross the doorstep. Dogs are a common sight in Afghanistan and are traditionally used for fighting, guarding and herding. The Afghan hound is considered a national treasure, although few can be found in the country anymore.
Many wealthy Afghans now import expensive breeds as a status symbol, especially German shepherds, but local or stray dogs are still widely shunned, and children often throw stones at them. Even though the American pamphlet showed a dog in connection with Taliban militants, who are officially the enemy of the Afghan government and people, the symbol and slogan were still considered offensive, creating a public uproar on social media and leading to the U.S. military's hasty apology.
The Taliban in a statement Wednesday slammed the leaflets, saying they were deliberately distributed to show the United States' "utter animosity with Islam." Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a spokesman for the group, urged Afghans to support the militants in their war against U.S. troops to save the country and Islam.
Zabiullah Mujahid, another spokesman for the group, later said that as a move to partly avenge the leaflets, a suicide bomber conducted an attack on U.S. troops at an entrance of Bagram air base Wednesday afternoon. The coalition confirmed a blast outside the base. Without giving details, it said that the blast had caused a small number of casualties and that the injured were treated inside the base.
The base was secure, it said in a statement.
The propaganda leaflets drew stern criticism and anger among the residents of Parwan — home to Bagram, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan — and prompted the coalition to issue an apology Wednesday.
"The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam. I sincerely apologize," Maj. Gen. James Linder said in a statement.
"We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide," he said, promising an investigation to find out why the incident happened and to hold those responsible accountable. "Furthermore, I will make appropriate changes so this never happens again."
Parwan's authorities have managed to calm anger by talking to the public, officials said.
"It is a very serious violation. The people are very angry. It is a major abuse against Islam," Mohammad Zaman Mamozai, the police chief of Parwan, said by phone.
"Why they do not understand or know our culture, our religion and history? We lost several million, became refugees, lost our country and government just because of our religion," he said referring to the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Images of the leaflets also have been published on some social media sites.
"Regain your freedom from these terrorist dogs and aid the coalition forces so that they annihilate these enemies," said the writing on the top of the leaflet.
President Ashraf Ghani's government, which some consider a puppet of the United States, has not reacted to the distribution of the leaflets.
Parwan was the scene of days of anti-U.S. demonstrations in 2012 when copies of the Koran along with other Islamic texts were burnedat the Bagram base by U.S. troops. The U.S. military apologized at the time, saying it was a mistake and not a deliberate act.
The demonstrations turned violent and spread to other parts of the country.
Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.