U.S. forces in Afghanistan are preparing for possible riots in the wake of Der Spiegel's decision to publish three "trophy photos" of U.S. soldiers posing with the Afghan civilians they killed. Senior NATO officials in Kabul say that the images could be more damning than the photos from Abu Ghraib because the Afghan civilians were deliberately murdered by a rogue U.S. Stryker tank unit that operated in Kandahar last year. The existence of the photos came to light last year during the court martial of five soldiers accused of killing three unarmed Afghan civilians. According to the AP, the photos, from the print edition of the magazine, show Corporal Jeremy Morlock from Wasilla, Alaska, grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by the hair. The images are just a handful from a collection of 4,000 images and videos.
The Spiegel feature also brings to light more grisly details about the killings. During an incident last May, the article says the team forced a mullah to kneel down in a ditch. The unit's leader, Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, then threw a grenade at the man while ordering him to be shot. Gibbs allegedly cut off the man's little fingers and removed a tooth. In a statement, the Army apologized for photographs, saying they depict "actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States".
The Army has tried to keep the photos from going public, especially while anti-American sentiment is already high. Last night, the U.N. ordered their staff on lockdown. And a security manager for the U.S.-based government contractor DynCorp sent an e-mail to clients warning that the photos were likely "to incite the local population" as the "severity of the incidents to be revealed are graphic and extreme."
During the court martial, two of the accused soldiers claimed the violence against civilians was at the insistence of their sergeant, Gibbs, who grew up in Billings, Montana. One of the accused sent Facebook messages home asking his dad to report Gibbs because he was worried he would be killed if he spoke up. Testimony in the case alleged that the unit was consumed with drug use, including heroin, opium, and hash.
As the U.S. helps facilitate air strikes over Libya, the photos are a chilling reminder of the unanticipated consequences of war.