The United States and NATO are concerned that reactions could be intense to the publication of images documenting killings committed by US soldiers in Afghanistan. The images appeared in the most recent edition of SPIEGEL, which hit the newsstands on Monday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already telephoned with her Afghan counterpart to discuss the situation. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon has likewise made contact with officials in Kabul. The case threatens to strain already fragile US-Afghan relations at a time when the two countries are negotiating over the establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan.
In a statement released by Colonel Thomas Collins, the US Army, which is currently preparing a court martial to try a total of 12 suspects in connection with the killings, apologized for the suffering the photos have caused. The actions depicted in the photos, the statement read, are "repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States."
The suspected perpetrators are part of a group of US soldiers accused of several killings. Their court martials are expected to start soon. The photos, the army statement said, stand "in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our soldiers' performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations."
Major Public Backlash
At NATO headquarters, there are fears that the coming days could see angry protests in Afghanistan or even potential attacks against NATO units. "The images have an enormous potential here in Afghanistan," one NATO general told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Experience shows that it might take a couple of days, but then people's anger will be vented."
NATO, under the leadership of the US Army, has been preparing for possible publication of the photos for close to 100 days. In dozens of high-level talks with their Afghan partners, military leaders have sought to pursue the same strategy used by the US diplomatic corps in the case of the sensitive diplomatic cables released late last year by WikiLeaks. They warned those most directly affected and made preparations for the photos' appearance in the public sphere. This "strategic communication" was aimed at preventing a major public backlash.
The high ranks of those involved in the talks show just how seriously Washington has taken the problem. US Vice President Joe Biden recently spoke about the case with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The head of all NATO troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, likewise met with Karzai.
By apologizing and by promising that those responsible will be prosecuted, the US is hoping to prevent Karzai from making any angry public statements on the case.
Whether the effort will ultimately be successful remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Karzai is scheduled to address his country to talk about the transfer of responsibility for his country's security from NATO to Afghanistan. With him will be members of the NATO leadership and the US Ambassador to Afghanistan. Karzai's address contains no mention of the so-called "kill team," but the Afghan president is notorious for being unpredictable.