U.S. occupation forces in Afghanistan have found themselves embroiled in a scandal of their own creation after distributing a series of inflammatory leaflets featuring anti-Muslim imagery, drawing profuse apologies from a senior U.S. Army commander. In addition to incensing locals in the Parwan province, north of Kabul, the propaganda move provoked an attack by the Taliban that resulted in several military and civilian casualties.
A photo of the leaflet circulating online shows a massive lion chasing a small white dog, an animal considered ritually unclean by Muslims, with a Quranic verse written across its body.
The passage, known as Kalima Tayyiba or words of purity, is part of the most important profession of faith in Islam, the Shahada. It is also featured on the white flag of the Afghan Taliban.
Rather than using the unique stylized calligraphy used on the Taliban flag, the design team of the U.S. occupation used an altogether different rendition of the phrase. The leaflet inflamed locals in the deeply religious region of Parwan, drawing criticism from Governor Mohammad Hasem, who condemned it as "unforgivable."
The incident highlights one of the challenges facing international forces in Afghanistan, most of which are from non-Muslim cultures, despite efforts Western forces have generally taken to avoid stoking anti-foreigner sentiment.
The risk of a backlash against international forces has grown more pronounced with a rise in civilian casualties caused by increased U.S. and Afghan government air strikes since the beginning of the year.
Local journalist Bilal Sarwary, who posted an image of the leaflet on his Twitter account, lamented how the U.S. occupation and NATO's Resolute Support mission “have never been further apart from the Afghan people” despite 16 years in the country. “Are the PR advisers fighting or feeding the enemies?” he asked.
Social media users condemned the disrespectful design, with one Facebook user noting, “They do this in a country with a 99.9% Muslim population. We will see how the (insurgents)... react.”
The Taliban, who are fighting to drive out foreign forces and re-establish its “Islamic Emirate” based on a local variant of theocratic traditionalism, issued a statement saying the leaflet made clear "that this war is a war between Islam and unbelief.”
On its official website, the Taliban said that it launched a suicide motorbike-borne explosive device near the entrance to nearby Bagram Air Base, the largest occupation stronghold in the country, to avenge the insult.
“Mohammad Idris, a Mujahid of the martyr unit of the (Taliban) conducted a martyrdom operation by blowing up a motorbike filled with explosives at gate of Bagram airbase in the late afternoon hours of Wednesday, inflicting casualties on over 20 U.S invaders,” the statement said.
“The martyr attacker blew up his motorcycle when a group of the U.S. invaders gathered near the third gate to Bagram airbase for some unknown reasons,” the story added. “The attack was in retaliation for disrespecting Kalima Tayyiba by the U.S invading aggressors.”
Although the Taliban itself said the attack killed “over 20 U.S. aggressors,” Western news agency Reuters claimed the attack only wounded four Afghan civilians, while U.S. military officials told CNN that a U.S. citizen was wounded in the attack. The officials didn't clarify if the citizen was a uniformed service member or a private military contractor.
The Georgian Defense Ministry, however, noted that three Georgian military personnel participating in the NATO Resolute Support mission were injured, including a senior lieutenant who suffered critical injuries requiring surgery.
In 2012, U.S. commanders were forced to apologize after copies of the Koran and other religious texts were mistakenly burned at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. The incident triggered large demonstrations in Kabul and other provinces in which several people were killed.
On another occasion, a film of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters caused widespread offense, prompting an investigation and criminal charges.
So-called information operations conducted by government and coalition forces have long been used to try to persuade local people to turn against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
"The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam," Major General James Linder said in a statement.
"I sincerely apologize. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide," he said, adding that an investigation would be held "to determine the cause of this incident and to hold the responsible party accountable."
"Those who have committed this unforgivable mistake in the publicity, propaganda or media section of the coalition forces will be tried and punished."