Washington, 29 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Under the U.S. military Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions, it is standard procedure for U.S. soldiers to bury, not burn, the remains of slain enemies.
But a Pentagon spokesman, Major Todd Vician, noted that the weather on 1 October in southern Afghanistan was hot -- over 30 degrees Celsius -- and that the two bodies were rapidly decomposing. He said the Americans had been ordered to stay near where the bodies lay.
Under these circumstances, Vician said, the Americans chose the option of cremating the body for hygienic reasons. Here, he said, is where the soldiers made a miscalculation. "They are taught, essentially, that enemy combatants may be buried or cremated. But while cremation is allowable for hygiene reasons under the Geneva Convention, it's not an acceptable practice according to the Afghan traditions and culture, and that's what's come up as a part of this investigation," he told RFE/RL.
Vician said the U.S. soldiers should have known this. If they were concerned about the bodies' decomposition, he said, they should have followed what he called another standard procedure: Consult with local Afghan officials about the appropriate way to deal with the dead.
This explanation doesn't go far enough, according to Sam Zia-Zarifi, the research director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Zia-Zarifi told RFE/RL that the Field Manual, which he called more strict than the Geneva Conventions, explicitly states that soldiers can't decide hygiene issues on their own.
"What's typically defined as a hygienic reason is if the person died of a communicable disease, or if the corpses are close to an open water source," Zia-Zarifi said. "That determination has to be made by medics [a member of the U.S military Medical Corps]."
Zia-Zarifi noted that the area where the bodies were cremated had been completely pacified. In fact, he said, the Americans used the bodies because they wanted an apparently reluctant group of suspected Taliban militants to come out and fight.
Under these circumstances, Zia-Zarifi said, the Americans had plenty of time to send a radio message to the nearest U.S. Medical Corps unit for instructions. Instead, he said, they acted on their own and further hurt the reputation of the United States in a predominantly Muslim country.
"There has been a record of a lack of accountability for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, ranging from homicide cases -- homicides of detainees -- to abuse of detainees. It is very important for them [the Americans] to demonstrate that they are following some legal framework. And they haven't. This case unfortunately strengthens the image of the U.S. as not holding itself subject to any law in Afghanistan," Zia-Zarifi said.
Vician, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged that some U.S. soldiers have acted inappropriately. After all, he said, two men involved in this incident have been disciplined. "We have determined that we can do better at understanding their customs and traditions, and have already started to train all those who are going there, and who are operating there as well, to better understand the customs and traditions of the people of Afghanistan," he added.
Vician said the U.S. military realizes that the only way it can accomplish its mission in Afghanistan is to earn the trust of the Afghan people, and the best way to do that is to prevent a recurrence of such culturally insensitive acts.