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How Will Marines Video Affect Relations Between U.S., Afghanistan, Taliban?

January 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
U.S. and Afghan officials denounced a video Thursday that appeared to show American troops urinating on enemy dead in Afghanistan. Judy Woodruff discusses the video's effects on potential peace talks with Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security and The Washington Post's David Ignatius.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we turn to former Army Captain Andrew Exum. He served in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 and is now a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. He was an adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus when they were the top commanders in Afghanistan. And David Ignatius is a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post. He has covered the Afghan conflict and the peace process.

And we thank you both for being here.

Andrew Exum, as a former uniformed service member, what’s your reaction to these videos?

ANDREW EXUM, former U.S. Army captain: I was disgusted, really.

I think that the reaction from the commandant of the Marine Corps up to the secretary of state was entirely appropriate. On the one hand, this type of dehumanization of the enemy takes place in every major conflict. On the other hand, we hold our soldiers to a higher standard. And we have commissioned and noncommissioned officers that are paid to make sure that these types of things do not happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how could something like this happen?

But what I found really disturbing watching the video is the sort of smirking, these guys looking at the camera and smiling as they urinate on these corpses.David Ignatius, The Washington Post

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I mean, first off, you are putting 18- and 19-year-olds in combat. I think, in a lot of ways, it’s good for the American people to see these videos because most people don’t have an idea of what Afghanistan is like, what the war is like.

And, yet, yet it’s important that people see the way that soldiers can be dehumanized through the experience. You see this happen with young soldiers. You see it happen when they’re not properly supervised by noncommissioned officers and by commissioned officers. And, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we have seen something like this take place in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … Abu Ghraib.

ANDREW EXUM: Yes. In fact, we’ve seen much worse.

You look at the kill team incidents in Southern Afghanistan just last year. That was arguably, certainly, a lot worse than what we saw in video today. But those visceral images are something that’s different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Ignatius, as somebody who has covered this conflict, how do you think something like this happened?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, I think Andrew Exum said all the things that are right. The videos are shocking. The behavior is immature. It’s just grotesquely…

ANDREW EXUM: That’s right.

DAVID IGNATIUS: … inappropriate. These are young men at war. They are dehumanized.

But what I found really disturbing watching the video is the sort of smirking, these guys looking at the camera and smiling as they urinate on these corpses. It’s just — it’s just terrible behavior, and it’s so damaging to the United States.

I just got back from Afghanistan right before Christmas. I met with lots of U.S. soldiers there. It’s appropriate and easy to say we have so many good soldiers and officers in combat, and that these are the exception, but it is terribly damaging. These images will persist. They’ll persist, persist on the Internet and in people’s minds for a very long time. And they undo so much work that had been done to try to say we are a benign presence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Exum, don’t the soldiers and the Marines get training about how to behave in a situation like this?

ANDREW EXUM: Oh, sure. Yeah, absolutely.

But, again, we see these types of things take place in conflict time and time again. And you can talk about, oh, well, the — you know, we have been there for 10 years and the length of this conflict has worn on the soldiers. But, quite frankly, we find incidents similar to this in 2002, at the very beginning.

I remember a young allied soldier being sent home for something very similar to this and being punished by his military for something similar to this, for kind of posing for a picture with a dead fighter.

I mean you see this type of inappropriate behavior. The important thing is, first off, the way you stop it is through good training and also firm noncommissioned officer supervision. And then the second, the important thing is that, first off, we condemn it in the way — the strong statements you saw today again from the commandant on up were appropriate — and, then, second, that we punish these soldiers for — these Marines — I’m sorry — for what they did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it sounds as if officials, U.S. officials are quite serious, determined that they are going to…

ANDREW EXUM: It sure does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … not only indicate — not only find out who they are, but then pursue an investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Ignatius, you mentioned there is going to be a long-lasting effect. What kind of an effect do you see?

The conflict goes on. The fighting goes on. And then there are, as we’re going to discuss here, peace talks that have been under way with the Taliban.

DAVID IGNATIUS: These are images of American arrogance to people who live in Afghanistan, to people around the world. They’re really repellent images.

And in the age of the Internet, they’re accessible to people in a way that these kind of images never were. Horrible things happen in every war, but now there’s the technology to capture them, and they do persist. And that’s going to be damaging for us.

It is especially unfortunate that these images emerge at a time when the U.S. was embarked seriously in carrying out Secretary of State Clinton’s pledge last February to seek some political settlement of the war through a process of reconciliation with the Taliban. That process has gone a lot further than many people had thought.

At the time that Secretary Clinton spoke last February, the U.S. had already met secretly in November of 2010 with a Taliban representative, a person who was the personal secretary of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. There have been perhaps a half-dozen meetings with this person since then.

So it’s a serious channel that’s continuing. And the fact that the Taliban said today that, despite the release of these images, they want this process to continue is interesting. One reason they want it to continue is because the Taliban fighters who are now in Guantanamo in prison are to be released to house arrest…

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things the Taliban has asked for.

DAVID IGNATIUS: … in Qatar as part of this confidence-building deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Andrew Exum, do we take the Taliban at its word, the word of the leaders who’ve made these statements today, that images like this won’t derail these talks?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes, I think what’s important to note here is that these images probably won’t have the strategic significance that the Abu Ghraib images had, in part because the die has already been cast in Afghanistan with terms of the NATO withdraw from Afghanistan, as well as these negotiations, which at least part of the insurgency feels, you know, can be a separate line of operation.

I think there are reasons to be cynical about the negotiations, not because those with whom we are negotiating with aren’t negotiating in good faith, but simply because there are no unitary actors in Afghanistan. The governor of Afghanistan, the insurgency, and even the NATO coalition are fragmented to a degree.

We all have different interests as we try to negotiate an end to this conflict. Even if you strike a deal with, say, the Quetta Shura Taliban, which I think would deeply like to be out from underneath the thumb of the Pakistani security services, that doesn’t mean you strike a deal with the Haqqani Network, that doesn’t mean you strike a deal with some of these other insurgent groups that are fighting in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, you did write about this yesterday. What is the status of those talks?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, the status is that we are awaiting formal announcement by President Karzai and by the Taliban that that office will open.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They have said they want an office of their own in Qatar.

DAVID IGNATIUS: They requested — they have said that they are prepared to open an office. They have requested Qatar. We proposed Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

And they countered by saying that they wanted Qatar. Quite a lot of work has been done in the background. But, as always, with these diplomatic things, you’re waiting for the last little pieces to come together. But they will come together with the opening of the office, then the release of the Guantanamo prisoners to Qatar under house arrest, in effect, under the supervision of this process.

And then you will have Afghans meeting with Taliban representatives to talk about a new set of confidence-building measures. And there are all kinds of things that people are speculating about. But I think the point is, if the office opens, then you begin other talks. As Andrew said, there are lots of reasons to be skeptical about this process. A lot of Afghans don’t like it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still divisions among the Afghan officials, divisions among the Taliban as well.

ANDREW EXUM: Sure, absolutely. I mean, the insurgency is by no means just one organization or one group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, as we sit here today — and, again, given this video that is out there — what are the expectations for those talks?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think, at this point, a process is likely.

I think the Taliban has gone far enough that it’s likely to continue. And I think we have to watch the reaction of other Afghans. Non-Pashtun Afghans are very suspicious of this. They do not like the idea of a process in which the U.S. negotiates with their enemy, and they worry that this is an election year, that President Obama has every reason to hurry these negotiations.

But it is a process that is going forward. As I wrote yesterday, all wars end, and they usually end through a process that begins a little bit like this. We don’t know if this process will work, but this is how wars end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s certainly one that we will continue to keep an eye on.

David Ignatius, Andrew Exum, we thank you both.

ANDREW EXUM: Thanks for having us.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Thanks, Judy.