On March 30, Afghan president Hamid Karzai strongly condemned actions of the “Kill Team,” a rogue U.S. military unit accused of deliberately murdering Afghan civilians. “I want the American people to know that the U.S. troops are oppressing our youths and elders before their kids and wives. If there is any conscience left in the West, it should be awakened,” Karzai told a gathering in Kabul. He made the remarks after reading details of the tragic story in Rolling Stone magazine, which also published photos and videos of the five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade abusing dead bodies of Afghan villagers.
Reaction to the photos in Afghanistan has largely been muted, perhaps because the news broke during the country’s New Year festivities when so many Afghans are on vacation or away from work. But this may change as Karzai’s condemnation draws more attention to the issue.
Karzai’s angry reaction is understandable. The deliberate killing of innocent civilians is a despicable act and a setback to winning the battle of hearts and minds. Such incidents fuel anti-American sentiments, serve Taliban and al-Qaeda propaganda, and make General Petraeus’ population-centric counterinsurgency efforts more difficult. Karzai is also right to pressure the coalition forces to do more to avoid civilian casualties in anti-Taliban air strikes. But the irony is that Karzai’s criticism of civilian casualties is only directed at the U.S. and allied forces, not against the Taliban.
According to the U.N, the Taliban were responsible for 75 percent of civilian deaths last year. Deaths caused by the Afghan government and foreign forces were 16 percent, down by 26 percent from 2009. But the public perception in Afghanistan is that U.S. troops are responsible for most of civilians killed. This is because President Karzai regularly lashes out at the United States, but refuses to blame the Taliban for civilian casualties. Government officials even do not use the term Taliban, and instead use vague terms such as “enemies of Afghanistan” and most recently “disgruntled brothers.” Indeed, in the same speech on Wednesday, Karzai thanked Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has reportedly said that his forces are not involved in burning schools and attacking public places.
Karzai’s masking of Taliban atrocities coupled with his ever-increasing anti-Western rhetoric hinders U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Winning the battle of public perception is essential to succeeding in Afghanistan. As former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal succinctly put it: “This is all a war of perceptions.” Unfortunately, the Afghan government and the United States are losing this crucial part of the battle.
— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.