To the surprise of many—from Taliban fighters to American officials—the Taliban’s official reaction to the explosive video of the four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of three Afghans was mature, even statesmanlike. Although one spokesman denounced the “wild action” of the U.S. troops and vowed that insurgent attacks on Americans would continue, Zabibullah Mujahid, the insurgency’s chief spokesman, was more circumspect. “The video will not harm our talks and the prisoner exchange because they are at a preliminary stage,” he said of the exploratory negotiations between U.S. and Taliban representatives in the Gulf state of Qatar. A senior Taliban logistical officer sounded a similarly moderate tone, telling The Daily Beast: “Our reaction was correct and mature. We condemned the despicable act but said it would not affect the talks.” Still, he was disheartened by the video. “In Afghanistan we have a saying: ‘Kill your enemy but don’t let his body rot in the sun.’ What happened is against our traditions and couldn’t have happened at a more sensitive time.”
The Taliban’s seemingly temperate line may hold promise for future talks, but it is clearly at odds with the hot-headed feeling among most Taliban fighters who have viewed or heard of the video, and with the general disgust among the Afghan public. Indeed, there seems to be a serious and perhaps dangerous disconnect between the Taliban’s suddenly more restrained official stance and its hard-pressed men in the field—and, indeed, the common man. “It’s insane,” says an Afghan subcommander in Helmand province where the urination incident allegedly took place last year. “Why are we talking to those who hate us so much that they desecrate our martyrs’ bodies?” he asks angrily in a phone conversation with The Daily Beast. His anger extends to the Taliban’s negotiators in Qatar. “To me those who claim to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in these talks are dishonoring the rivers of blood we have shed,” he says. “This act is worse than that of animals,” adds the subcommander who declines to be named for security reasons. “They showed no shame.”
Jan Mohammad Khan, a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan, says the video affected him more than all the carnage that he’s seen in his 10 years in the jihad. “I have never hurt so much as I did when I saw this video,” he says. “These Americans have crossed the borders of civilization and humanity by disrespecting the dead.”
Perhaps the full repercussions of the video have yet to be felt. “These four guys really poked a stick into a hornets’ nest,” says an Afghan who worked as a translator for the U.S. forces in Helmand province for several years and doesn’t want to be identified. “This will stir up both fighters and most Afghans to hate Americans in Afghanistan more.” But he says he was not surprised when he saw the video online. He remembers seeing U.S. soldiers urinating on a village path while Afghan women were passing by, returning home carrying water containers on their heads. “I told them they shouldn’t do these things that make the people angry,” he recalls. “But they laughed and didn’t seem to care.” During his time with the U.S. military he says he saw many U.S. troops openly violating Afghan customs and sensitivities.
The former translator who lives in Kabul with his family says the video has outraged even his normally calm and moderate father. “This morning my father was so angry that he ordered me to burn any money I may still have from the Americans as it was a sin to keep it,” he says. “If this action has so angered my father, it will certainly anger other common Afghans.” If so, the already difficult fledgling peace process has just become even more complicated.