A video showing what appear to be American forces urinating on dead Taliban fighters prompted anger in Afghanistan and promises of a U.S. investigation on Thursday, but the insurgent group said it would not harm nascent efforts to broker peace talks.
The video, posted on YouTube and other websites, shows four men in camouflage Marine combat uniforms urinating on three corpses. One of them jokes: Have a nice day, buddy. Another makes a lewd joke.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the video, describing the men's actions as inhuman and calling for an investigation, in a statement on Thursday evening.
It is likely to stir up already strong anti-U.S. sentiment in Afghanistan after a decade of a war that has seen other cases of abuse, and that could complicate efforts to promote reconciliation as foreign troops gradually withdraw.
Such action will leave a very, very bad impact on peace efforts, Arsala Rahmani, a senior member of the Afghan government's High Peace Council, told Reuters.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul also condemned the actions of the men, and the U.S. military has promised an investigation.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, seeing a glimmer of hope after months of efforts to broker talks, is launching a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy this weekend.
Marc Grossman, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will fly into the region for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top officials in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
His immediate goal is to seal agreement for the Taliban to open a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Despite concerns when the video first emerged that it would not help his efforts build confidence among the warring parties, a Taliban spokesman said although the images were shocking, the tape would not affect talks or a mooted prisoner release.
We know that our country is occupied...This is not a political process, so the video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange because they are at the preliminary stage.
ILLEGAL, AGAINST HUMANITY
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denounced the actions show in the film as utterly deplorable.
Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent, he said in a statement.
Panetta said he had ordered the Marine Corps and the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to investigate. ISAF described the acts depicted in the video as disrespectful and inexplicable.
Two military officials in the United States, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the video appeared to be authentic, but Reuters could not verify it or its source independently.
News of the footage had yet to spread in Afghanistan -- a country where a minority have access to electricity and the Internet is limited to an tiny urban elite -- but Afghans who were told about what the tape appears to show were horrified.
It may start with just video footage, but it will end with demonstrations around the country and maybe the world, said 44-year-old Qaisullah, who has a shop near the Kabul's Shah-e-dushamshera mosque.
Anti-American feeling has boiled over, or been whipped up, into violence several times in Afghanistan in recent years. Protests over reports of the desecration of the Muslim holy book have twice sparked deadly riots.
The tape also sparked anger across the Middle East and in internet chatrooms, prompting reference to earlier scandals involving U.S. soldiers' treatment of prisoners in Iraq and the killing of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan.
This is the embodiment of the strong assaulting the weak. It's nothing new for the American, it only adds to what they have done in Abu Ghraib prison. This a breach of the sacredness of Islam and Muslims, said Othman al-Busaifi, 45, in Tripoli.
The U.S. military has been prosecuting soldiers from the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade on charges of murdering unarmed Afghan civilians while deployed in Kandahar province in 2010, and cutting off body parts as war trophies.
They cut off ears and fingers and keep them as medals, and urinate on bodies, then they talk about civilisation, wrote user Abu Abdullah al-Janubi on one forum.
The video was released at a critical time for what U.S. officials hope might become authentic talks on Afghanistan's political future.
In Kabul, Grossman will seek approval from Karzai -- whose support for a U.S. effort he fears will sideline his government has wavered -- to move ahead with a series of good-faith measures seen as an essential precursor to negotiations that could give the Taliban a shared role in governing Afghanistan.
The diplomatic initiative includes a possible transfer of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison.
A breakthrough would mark a milestone for the Obama administration, struggling to secure a modicum of stability in Afghanistan as it presses ahead with its gradual withdrawal from a long and costly war. The United States and its allies aim to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Missy Ryan and Warren Strobel in WASHINGTON, Ali Suaib in TRIPOLI, Firouz Sedarat and Andrew Hammond in DUBAI; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Ron Popeski)