President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday denounced American soldiers who posed for gruesome pictures with Afghan victims of alleged “trophy” killings, calling the deaths cruel and tragic.
Addressing the issue publicly for the first time since the graphic images first surfaced this month in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, and more subsequently were revealed by Rolling Stone magazine, the Afghan leader said the photos should stir international indignation — “if there is conscience left in the West.”
The five U.S. soldiers accused of killing at least three Afghan civilians are members of the 5th Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. Prosecutors say members of the group, who have been charged with murder and conspiracy, formed a “kill team” that targeted unarmed civilians and then covered up their actions by pretending they had been under attack.
More than 100 photos, reminiscent of those taken by U.S. troops in Iraq who engaged in notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, are part of the trove of evidence against the Stryker defendants. One of the five, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, pleaded guilty to murder and other charges last week and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
The Pentagon has issued a public apology for the images and the distress they cause, saying in a statement that they were “disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the United States Army.”
Karzai, speaking at a teachers’ graduation ceremony in the capital, Kabul, accused the soldiers of deliberately taking aim at defenseless civilians.
“They killed a young boy for entertainment, they killed an old man for entertainment, and even planned to kill children — to throw candy and then fire on them,” he said. “It’s very sad. It’s a tragic story.”
The killings, which took place over a five-month period last year in Kandahar province, are generally considered among the worst atrocities involving Western troops to come to light in the course of the nearly 10-year-old Afghan war. Details depicting the platoon as riddled with drug use and violent rogue behavior have emerged in piecemeal fashion over a period of months.
Many Western organizations operating in Kabul had braced for trouble after the pictures’ publication, fearing potential retaliatory attacks against foreigners. So far, though, the inflammatory images — which have not been disseminated by Afghan news media, and which most Afghans cannot view online — have not ignited large-scale protests.
Anti-Western demonstrations in Afghanistan are often highly orchestrated in nature, organized by religious and militant leaders rather than developing spontaneously, which leaves open the possibility they may yet occur. Large street protests have been organized over civilian casualties, or rumors that Western troops committed an act such as desecrating a copy of the Koran.
Karzai, who is a harsh and frequent critic of civilian deaths and injuries caused by foreign forces, was careful to avoid a wholesale denunciation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in the country. The alliance force numbers about 150,000, two-thirds of whom are American.
“The people of the United States are undoubtedly good and compassionate people.…They are not cruel,” Karzai said in his speech. But he added, addressing Americans: “In your name some cruel actions have been visited on our people.”
The Afghan leader also echoed a theme he has frequently sounded in recent months: linking the foreign presence to what he has called meddling in Afghan affairs.
Over the last year and a half, Karzai has been under intense pressure from Western backers to clean up corruption in his government. The criticism grew after the near-collapse last year of the country’s largest private financial institution, Kabul Bank, which had doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to politically influential Afghans, including some members of Karzai’s inner circle. The International Monetary Fund has recommended that the bank be placed in receivership.
In his speech, Karzai suggested that if the country had not been weakened by decades of war, “we wouldn’t be a host for foreign troops, and Afghanistan wouldn’t be under pressure and restrictions from the IMF and the World Bank.”
Karzai, who has been trying to woo the Taliban leadership to the bargaining table, also made a brief but conciliatory mention of reports that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the movement’s supreme leader, had ordered a halt to attacks by his fighters on Afghan schools, students and teachers.
“If that is true, we are thankful to them,” the president said.