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U.S. military apologizes for 'highly offensive' leaflets it distributed in Afghanistan

The U.S. military in Afghanistan apologized Wednesday for distributing leaflets featuring an image “highly offensive” to Muslims.

The leaflets dropped Tuesday night over parts of Parwan province showed the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, printed on the image of a dog, an animal viewed by many Muslims as unclean.

“Get your freedom from these terrorist dogs,” reads the Pashto-language text. “Help the coalition forces find these terrorists and eliminate them.”

The image shows a lion chasing a white dog that is meant to represent the flag of Taliban insurgents, which is white with the Shahada printed at the center. The Times obtained a copy of the leaflet from an Afghan official in Parwan.

The Shahada, the most common recitation of faith for Muslims, states, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Local officials in Parwan complained Tuesday night to the provincial governor, prompting a phone call to U.S. military officials in Kabul and at Bagram air base in Parwan.

“It’s an insult to Islam,” said Waheeda Shakhar, spokeswoman for the Parwan governor. “It’s very sensitive that the Shahada is written on a dog, so it must be investigated.”

Maj. Gen. James Linder, a U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged in a statement that “the design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam.”

“I sincerely apologize. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide,” Linder said.

Linder said the U.S. military was investigating how the leaflet was produced, and would “hold the responsible party accountable.”

U.S. forces have been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years, yet still find themselves tripping over cultural sensitivities in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation. The Taliban has used such incidents to label U.S.-led coalition troops as invaders and infidels, and Afghan soldiers and police as their puppets.

In 2012, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta apologized after reports said Muslim religious materials, including copies of the Koran, had been inappropriately burned in an incinerator at Bagram. The reports fueled deadly protests and a rash of attacks against American troops.

The leaflet controversy comes as the Trump administration plans to add several thousand U.S. troops to the 11,000 currently stationed in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Shaheer, an independent analyst in Kabul, called the latest incident “a big shame” and said U.S.-led international forces have failed to obtain the help of trained Afghan cultural advisors.

“The foreign forces don’t have any idea of what are the values of the Afghan people,” Shaheer said. “They’ve hired some interpreters and advisors who only know how to speak English, make money and gain trust, but really are strangers to the real values of the local people.”

After the leaflet drop, a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up Wednesday outside a base used by American forces, wounding four civilians.

The attack, which the Taliban said was to avenge the U.S. leaflets, indicated that the increasingly potent insurgent movement would attempt to capitalize on the latest cultural misstep by American forces in Afghanistan.

The explosion occurred at an entrance to Bagram, the district governor said.

Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Shashank Bengali from Mumbai, India.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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