Taliban Corpse Photos: Friendly Fire in a Digital War

The U.S. military knows that wars against extremists hinge on perception, and graphic images like those published by the Los Angeles Times can set it back—but the learning curve appears to be steep, writes P.J. Crowley. Plus, Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on Afghans’ reaction to the photos.

04.19.12 10:10 PM ET

The United States has long understood that the ongoing struggle against violent political extremists like al Qaeda is—beyond shooting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen—a competition of perception being waged on a global and digital playing field. But having made significant gains in recent years, the country is now losing ground, lately due to friendly fire.

The Los Angeles Times’s publication of “trophy photos” of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan mugging with body parts of dead Taliban fighters is yet another reminder of how discreet actions in the actual war have strategic effects in the virtual war—a front on which telling images can inflict damage long after the shooting stops.

It’s hard to imagine how Taliban propagandists could have designed a better campaign to undermine the ongoing NATO effort in Afghanistan than the almost unbelievable string of self-inflicted wounds it has suffered in recent months—the video of Marines urinating on dead fighters, the Quran burnings, the alleged murder of 17 Afghans by a U.S. soldier, and now these photos, emerging this week despite being taken two years ago.

At the highest levels, the Pentagon recognized the potential impact of the photos on the battlefield. It requested the Times refrain from publishing them to avoid giving insurgents a pretext to incite violence against soldiers. The Times was convinced of the importance of the story, at least in part, by the soldier from the 82nd Airborne who suggested the photos reveal a breakdown in leadership, discipline, and professionalism that has yet to be adequately addressed within the military.

It’s unclear what, if any, impact the release of the photos will have within Afghanistan itself. Afghans, while continuing to recognize the importance of the international troop presence in building an effective government that can protect and serve them, have long been critical of the civilian collateral damage that comes with it. These photos may be viewed simply as more of the same.

The Taliban have tried to exploit the recent U.S. missteps. It termed its offensive last weekend as retaliation against the ongoing international presence. There is some risk that the Taliban, given these ongoing stumbles, will recalculate its willingness to negotiate a political settlement and simply wait for the U.S. and NATO to leave at the end of 2014. The Taliban suspended preliminary talks with the U.S. last month.

Notwithstanding such attempts, the Obama administration and Karzai government have, despite obvious tensions, effectively managed the politics surrounding these incidents. Negotiations continue on a long-term status of forces agreement that will enable a smaller contingent of U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed this commitment at a NATO meeting in Brussels.

The photos’ real impact may be on public opinion within the U.S. and other troop-contributing countries. Polling has shown a steady decline in public support for the efforts in Afghanistan over the past few months. Just this week, Australia announced plans to withdraw its troops a year ahead of schedule. A number of countries will be tempted to follow suit.

NATO leaders will review its Afghanistan strategy next month in Chicago. And while there were plenty of assurances in Brussels this week that plans remain unchanged, the U.S. will need to employ a good deal of political power to keep things on track through 2014 and sustain international support for Afghanistan longer term.

More broadly, questions linger over whether the military has fully adapted to the 21st-century operating environment, in which more of its actions are visible to more people in more places.

British Gen. Rupert Smith has characterized modern conflict as “war amongst the people,” with much greater interaction between the combatants and populations on the battlefield or with a stake in the eventual outcome. Governments’ ability to control the flow of information and sustain a coherent narrative about these conflicts is significantly eroded.

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There is no better example of that than Syria, which has been unable to control the flow of information regarding its efforts to suppress a stubborn, year-old protest movement, despite its banning traditional media from the country. Instead, thanks to social media and other modern networks, citizens, political and social actors, nongovernmental organizations, and the media have been able to construct a credible account of what is happening in Syria’s major cities.

War is indeed “ugly,” as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in response to this latest episode. Such “foolish” actions by soldiers “caught up in the moment,” as Panetta described, have undoubtedly happened in every war we’ve ever waged.

But now, what happens on the battlefield no longer stays on the battlefield. Once viral, the impact of some incidents is difficult to predict and harder to contain.

The military’s Counterinsurgency Manual, now five years old, encourages soldiers to evaluate “how the global audience might perceive their actions.” The side that “learns faster and adapts,” it advises, is most likely to win.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. is still on the learning curve.