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October 29, 2005

Burning Bodies in Afghanistan: Two Views

This past week a story appeared in the media about some US soldiers in Afghanistan who were allegedly buring the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. On Thursday Fox News reported that

Islamic clerics expressed outrage Thursday at television footage that purportedly shows U.S. soldiers burning the bodies of two dead Taliban (search) fighters to taunt other militants and warned of a possible violent anti-American backlash.

On Friday, the BBC added that

The US military has launched a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct by its troops in Afghanistan, including the burning of Taleban corpses.

The move came after an Australian TV station ran footage of what it says was US soldiers burning the remains.

The footage shows other troops apparently taunting residents of a nearby village, which they believed to be harbouring the Taleban.

The act of burning corpses is regarded as a sacrilege in Islam.

If true, does this act create a problem for the United States? Is it something that we should be concerned about?

To help answer this, let's consider the responses of two writers that I have come to respect; Michael Yon, and the editors of StrategyPage.com

James Dunnigan is editor-in-chief of StrategyPage.com, with Austin Bay and Adam Geibel as contributing editors. Al Nofi is senior editor and columnist. All are widely-aclaimed writers on military and political matters. In an October 25 editorial, they conclude that the action will have

...no impact in the Islamic world. That's because, in the Islamic media, stories like this are invented daily. You can check out the English language sites for media in Islamic countries for examples. Some wild stuff there. The Moslems who hate us won’t change their minds because of two burning bodies. Those Moslems who are down on Islamic terrorists won’t get very upset about two of them getting torched, even though cremation is frowned upon in the Islamic world (even for Islamic terrorists who burn fellow Moslems to death in the course of their operations, which explains al Qaedas sagging poll numbers.)

The impact of such actions by our troops may, however, hurt us at home because politicians will overreact:

It will hurt in those parts of the world where there is more concern for burned up Taliban than in the Moslem world. That's largely in the Western world, especially among some American politicians and pundits. How will this hurt? Congress can call for more “oversight” of U.S. military operations. The troops are already irked at the lawyers added to some staffs over the last decade. The lawyers are their to veto operations if there is too great a chance that the action will offend someone in the world and, ultimately, someone in Congress.

The real problem, they conclude, will probably come from local Afghanis

If the bodies were burned as a result of some psychological warfare operation, or just to clean up the battlefield, and the act offended the local Moslems, the troops will pay a higher price than any official investigation (which is already underway) can hand out. The troops have to deal with angry, and heavily armed, people every day

Michael Yon is a free-lance imbed with the US Army in Iraq. His experiences are widely quoted on popular blogs, such as Belmont Club. He is the author of Danger Close, and, from his website, "His dispatches have the benefit of his life experiences without drawbacks based on deadlines or demands of marketplace."

While Yon does not directly address the issue of the "burning bodies" in his last dispatch, he does have some things to say about the issue of treatment of prisoners which does have some bearing on the matter. He considers the letter we intercepted which had been sent by Usama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is in charge of Al Qaeda operations in Iraq. From this letter Yon concludes that

The author implies that most Muslims have a heart even for those they might once have considered enemies, warning that great numbers of Muslims who may have been supporters will instead turn against the terrorists because they do not approve of slaughtering hostages. Cynical westerners hearing that Muslims are generally peaceful people roll their eyes in disbelief, casting them in the general direction of the most recent homicide bomb attack. But here a top terrorist apparently takes pains to point out that devout Muslims are averse to slaughtering people. When Muslims react in anger about what we did at Abu G and other prisons, they are not merely posturing; they are deadly serious. Just as the terrorists lose support when they slaughter our people, we lose support when we abuse anyone.

Who is right? Both, perphaps, in their own way?

On the one hand, the amount virulence of anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda coming from much of the Middle East is staggering. One only has to peruse a few translations of it from the invaluable MEMRI to get an idea of how bad it is. Also, we must unfortunately acknowledge that both liberal and conservative politicians at home will sieze on this and demand greater ovbersight, which will hamper our efforts in the field.

But is Yon right that such actions add fuel to the propaganda fire? Perhaps.

My initial take is that we should avoid incidents such as the "burning bodies" one as much as possible. We also have to realize that such things are going to happen in war no matter how much "oversight" we build into the process. Indeed, such things are part of the inevitable consequences of going to war in the first place, which is why such a decision must not be taken lightly.

This does not mean that we just shrug off such incidents as "these things will happen" and let it go at that. As the editors of StrategyPage point out in the article cited above, "Soldiers sent to Afghanistan go through many hours of cultural sensitivity training. They already know that one misstep can destroy lots of good will, and that in turn means fewer Afghans will pass on useful (often life saving) information, and more will fell inclined to take shot at Americans." In other words, Mr and Mrs Politician, there's no need for more of your "oversight", so lay off, please.

Between StragegyPage's conclusion that "stuff like this has no impact in the Islamic world" and Yon's view that "just as the terrorists lose support when they slaughter our people, we lose support when we abuse anyone", I think that both overstate their case, but in the end I am closer to Yon's position. Propaganda matters.

What do you think?

Posted by Tom at October 29, 2005 2:14 PM