Losing the media war in Afghanistan

A soldier from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division poses with a dead insurgent's hand on his shoulder. The image was first published in the LA Times, which received it from an unnamed soldier in the division.

A soldier from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division poses with a dead insurgent's hand on his shoulder. The image was first published in the LA Times, which received it from an unnamed soldier in the division.
A soldier from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division poses with a dead insurgent's hand on his shoulder. The image was first published in the LA Times, which received it from an unnamed soldier in the division.
by CBS News Afghanistan consultant Jere Van Dyk

(CBS News) It is said the U.S. military won every battle in Vietnam, but we lost the war. One of the most vivid images of that time is of a U.S. helicopter on the roof of the American embassy as people are climbing on, hoping to be on the last flight out of Saigon.

With its overwhelming firepower both on the ground and in the air, the U.S. has probably won every battle it has fought in Afghanistan. But now there is a 24/7 news cycle. The war, more than in Vietnam, is being fought on the airwaves and in the press. Afghanistan is a largely illiterate country, but for thousands of years people have sat around campfires at night and talked. Stories have passed down for centuries.

Today, every village, no matter how isolated, has a battery-powered radio and every day and every night someone listens to the BBC or VOA and learns the news. The Afghans are illiterate, but they are not naive. After 30 years of war they understand international politics. They understand war. They form their opinions by what they see, or hear about, happening in their country.

And by now, every Afghan, no matter how isolated, will know that U.S. soldiers again have been mocking dead Afghans. U.S. soldiers have been disrespecting the dead.

Photos show U.S. GIs posing with dead Afghans
Video: Troop leaders concerned about new photos

"What kind of men are these Americans that mock those who souls have gone to Paradise," every Afghan will ask. "Who are these barbarians who claim to have come to help us, to install what they call 'democracy,' this Western religion?"

The most damaging part of the photos is the U.S. soldiers and what appears to be a translator, holding up the severed legs of suicide bombers, and laughing. In another photo, a handsome young soldier is grinning like a boy as a fellow soldier puts a severed hand on his shoulder. Everyone is laughing.

The Taliban will not laugh, and neither will the millions of Afghans who see again and again that U.S. soldiers are treating Afghans with disrespect.

Every Afghan who dies fighting the infidel invader -- whether the Russians in the 1980s, or the Americans today -- is a shaheed, a martyr. Shaheed means "witness" in Pashto, a witness for God. Pashto is the language of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The Taliban are Pashtuns. Afghans place a high flag next to the grave of a shaheed and Afghanistan is called the "Land of the High Flags." The U.S. soldiers do not know this, or seem to care. A shaheed goes directly to paradise. He does not wait for Judgment Day.

Martyr comes from the Greek "martyus," also meaning witness, a witness for God. In Christianity, a martyr also goes directly to heaven. He does not wait for Judgment Day. He sits on the right hand seat of God. So it is in Islam. So it is in Afghanistan.

And so again the U.S. is seen as mocking the dead, mocking those who died in the most glorious way that a warrior can die -- as a martyr.

In the Afghan-Soviet war of 1979-1989, there was no such thing as a suicide bomber. It was (and still is) against the code of the Pashtuns to kill women and children, and to commit suicide. There is nothing honorable in killing oneself. In 1995, two Egyptians, members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, blew themselves up attacking the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. It was the first suicide bombing in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri, current leader of al-Qaeda, founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The Arab jihadists brought suicide bombing to Afghanistan. It has become part of the culture.

There is a graveyard of Arabs killed by the Americans near Khost, along the Afghan-Pakistani border. It has become a place of pilgrimage. People come to pray at the gravesite of martyrs.

The U.S. can once again win all its battles, but it is slowly losing the war. It is losing the hearts and minds of the people it came to save from the Taliban. The U.S. is showing, no matter what the truth is, that it does not care about Afghans, and does not care about Islam.

The Taliban will use this latest incident as they will go at night to every village and say, "Here is yet more proof that the U.S. is an insensitive infidel invader. It does not care about or understand Afghan culture, our culture. Come with us. We have God on our side."

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