The Obvious Offense We See: Afghanistan

In a story that is still developing, an Internet video has surfaced that apparently portrays four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. The U.S. government has of course condemned what the video depicts, and it appears as though the military has already identified the soldiers responsible.

The video has already sparked outrage in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, as it continues an unfortunate trend in which the U.S. has cast human rights to the wayside when it comes to Islam and Islamic insurgents. In 2005, Newsweek reported that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Quran by flushing it down a toilet. Afghans attacked U.N. employees last year when American pastor Terry Jones followed through on his on-again, off-again threat to burn the Islamic holy book. More than a few outlets have compared this latest debacle to the photos that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2004, which revealed that U.S. Army personnel and others had been torturing and abusing detainees held in Iraq.

Interestingly, the group you would most expect to be livid over the video, the Taliban, has stated that it will not deter them from participating in possible peace negotiations with the U.S. and Afghan governments. They are, they claim, not surprised by the latest insult in a string of disrespectful and barbaric practices the West has subjected them to in the course of its occupation. The problem with this position is not that it is irrational rhetoric by a band of militant zealots. Given our record in Afghanistan, it is actually quite logical.

It is easy to be angry and ashamed watching the video in question. The disregard for the dead is obvious; the conduct of men representing the United States is clearly juvenile and dishonorable. What is less evident – and therefore less discussed and rarely denounced – is how the war in Afghanistan has long been lacking in honor, and that the U.S. has not only repeatedly dismissed concern for slain combatants but for living innocents. No one has captured on film all the Afghan civilians killed in their fields and their homes in countless air raids and drone attacks. No one has piled high the child corpses that the war has claimed as “collateral damage” in the more than a decade this war has gone on. Granted, no one may have urinated on those bodies, but their deaths nevertheless speak to how brutal and callous modern “warfare” has become and how indiscriminate the daily slaughter is.

The difference, some would say, is that urinating on dead Taliban militants serves no purpose, whereas the deaths of civilians, while tragic, is an unavoidable byproduct in our overall mission to liberate Afghanistan and defeat terrorism. If this is the case, then that overall mission has been a failure.

Afghanistan is certainly not free, except in that it possesses the “freedom” to do what the U.S. allows it to do. Last year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced a ban on the bombing of houses due to the mounting number of noncombatant deaths such bombings caused, and the furor that arose as a result. U.S. officials quickly noted that Karzai did not have the power to veto who or what the U.S. wanted to bomb in his country. More recently, Karzai has protested NATO (in other words, U.S.) night raids into Afghan homes, again due to civilian casualties but also due to the understandable dislike Afghans feel about having their private sanctuaries violated without their permission. Coming from Oklahoma, I could not imagine U.S. troops invading civilian homes at 4 a.m. without judicious exercise of the Castle Doctrine, much less foreign troops. I could also not imagine any popularly elected politician who allowed such raids to happen to enjoy much support, and with Karzai’s decisions and interest articulation rendered to mere suggestions by overruling U.S. orders, it is hard to envision Karzai having much credibility with his citizenry. After all, he has been the main native facilitator behind NATO (again, U.S.) military operations in Afghanistan, and those are deeply unpopular.

So is, admittedly, the Taliban. Yet the Taliban’s political arm knows that it does not need popularity; it just needs Afghans to see Karzai as a Western stooge, an illegitimate ruler propped up by Western wealth and power. In that instance, whatever organization can claim a legacy of resistance against the deprival of sovereignty, against civilian slaughter, against endless occupation will mobilize support to its side. Much as how Hamas evolved from a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood into a Palestinian nationalist party, it is feasible that the Taliban could coalescence Afghan grievances into an endorsement for its radical opposition to the West, if not for its strident adherence to the ascetic lifestyles of the Prophet Muhammad’s early followers. The Taliban could transition from a revolutionary movement into a democratic institution. Again, the potential parallels with Hamas are striking. Just as Israel, with U.S. support, bestowed legitimacy upon Hamas repeatedly even when it was on the verge of alienating Palestinians with the strident elements of its platform, the U.S. may very well instigate a repeat of the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, which transformed Hamas overnight from a terrorist group to a democratically elected government.

As to the charge that the Afghan war has not defeated terrorism, the proof should be common sense. Many in the Muslim world did not “hate us for our freedom” circa 2001, but since then many have to come to despise us the appalling incidents that have colored our occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In the background to these events, too, has been a persistent Islamophobia, evidenced by everything from the outcry over the so-called “World Trade Center mosque” to the sudden respectability of virulent atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, who (for some reason) seemed to receive attention when he directed his ire against Islam specifically. When some of us read about efforts in Oklahoma to ban the implementation of sharia law, it is natural (and appropriate) for us to roll our eyes and laugh it off. How many of us, however, pause to consider what the impact is when this nonsense is reported in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi or Kuala Lumpur? How long can you denigrate an entire religious community, the third largest in the world, before that breeds resentment, manifest in this case for, if involvement, then at the least sympathy for anti-Western causes?

There is no defense for the actions of the Marines displayed in the urination video. No matter how much some apologists may retreat into jingoistic comments or vague “war is hell” arguments, nothing can surpass the basic fact that those who wear our country’s uniforms represent us all, and undoubtedly most Americans would not want such behavior undertaken in their name. Yet we must also ask ourselves whether the incessant mowing down of countless militants as well as innocent bystanders is something else we want done in our name as well.

It is easy to feel anger for the obvious offense that we see. It is more difficult to feel anger for the injustice we are made less aware of, but exists nonetheless.

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