People are expressing shock and outrage, all right—but mostly inside Kabul’s presidential palace and the offices of U.S. officials. Apart from those places, even Taliban officials are reacting with relative calmness to the publication by the Los Angeles Times of 2-year-old photos of American troops posing with the remains of Taliban suicide bombers. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “strongly condemned” the troops’ behavior, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the pictures “odious” and “disgusting.” But the muted response from most Afghans so far suggests that the insurgents will be unable to generate much anti-American traction from the incident. The Taliban’s own hands are too bloody for that.
Concerned that the grisly pictures might provoke violent unrest in Afghanistan, the U.S. military raised security precautions to protect its troops, but the measures seem to have been unnecessary. There has been nothing like the deadly uproar that followed the discovery of Qurans in a U.S. military burn pit at Bagram airbase this past February. “I just don’t see the Taliban being able to stir up anti-West sentiments over these photos,” says Mirwais Yasini, the first deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament’s lower house. So far, the Taliban reaction has been limited to a short statement condemning the “shameful act by wild U.S. forces.”
In fact, some ranking Taliban officials seem more worried than angered by the photographs. Zabihullah, a senior Taliban political operative, warns that the photos will provide ammunition to hardline Taliban commanders who have been against talks with the Americans all along and want to make sure the currently suspended Qatar negotiations will not resume. “Such horrible photos will help those elements among the Taliban who do not want to talk to the U.S.,” says Zabihullah. “The photos provide another pillar of strength supporting their opposition to negotiating with the enemy.”
Although most Afghans who have seen the grisly images say they’re upset by the troops’ treatment of the corpses, the disapproval hasn’t translated into any sympathy for the Taliban or public protests against the U.S. “Insulting dead bodies is an insult to all of humanity,” Maulvi Abdullah Abid, a cleric who runs a madrassa in Kabul, tells The Daily Beast. “At the same time we condemn the atrocious killing of innocent civilians by the Taliban.” Like many Afghans, Abid seems to blame all the warring parties equally for Afghanistan’s decades of suffering. In his view, there are no good guys in this war. “We condemn whatever has been done by the U.S. and NATO over the 10 years against innocents, and by the Taliban as well,” he says. “Both are responsible for this worst human tragedy we are watching.”
That attitude is echoed by Aryan, a 45-year-old Kabul shopkeeper. He too is disgusted by the photos, he says—but not as disgusted as he is by the Taliban’s often indiscriminate suicide bombings and IED attacks and roadside bombings that have killed and maimed so many civilians. Aryan says the Taliban are nothing but tools of neighboring Pakistan’s designs on Afghanistan. “The Taliban are terrorists who kill women and children in bombings every day,” he says. “Their body parts and dead bodies should be dispatched to their motherland in Pakistan.”
Juma Khan, an Afghan soldier, says the Taliban’s acts are far worse than posing with an enemy’s severed body parts. “A suicide bomber like that one [whose mangled body is shown in the photos] could easily kill 50 innocents,” he says. “The Taliban have beheaded our soldiers and even cut off hands and other body parts before the soldier or policeman is dead. We are pained by the Quran burnings and by the U.S.’s killing of civilians, but we have no sympathy for terrorists, whether they are alive or dead.”
Nevertheless, the photos have further sullied America’s already badly tarnished image. “Posing with the dead body of any Afghan, Taliban or not, gives Afghans a worse perception of the U.S.,” says Ahmad Farid, an Afghan student currently attending Islamabad’s Islamic University. “After seeing such images, I can’t understand how the U.S. can talk about human values, human rights, and obeying the rules of war.” What worries him, he says, is the idea that attitudes like those displayed in the photos might take root in his home country. “Those soldiers seem like a wild herd, running crazy abroad,” he adds. “I’m afraid that with incidents like these, the U.S. presence is going to change our Afghan values into negative U.S. values.” Even if the U.S. military’s worries about violent protests don’t come true, the photos seem to reflect a disturbing sense of arrogance and lack of discipline. That perception can only undermine America’s already troubled efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.