A former Afghan lawmaker told an audience of South Sound peace activists Tuesday that photos of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers grinning over the corpse of a boy they allegedly murdered revealed a disregard for civilian lives among U.S. forces fighting in her country.
"They are making fun with the dead bodies of my people," said Malalai Joya, 32, a human rights activist who visited the University of Washington Tacoma on her U.S. speaking tour. About 80 people attended her talk, which was hosted by the group Peace Action of Washington and was her seventh in the Puget Sound area this week.
She spoke about 12 miles north of the Lewis-McChord jail, where the soldiers shown in the photographs are being held as they await courts-martial.
Five soldiers in their Stryker platoon face charges that they murdered Afghan civilians during patrols with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division last year. One, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Joya criticized their courts-martial as a distraction from the suffering the war has inflicted on ordinary Afghans. She advocated a rapid withdrawal of American forces, whose presence she argued props up corrupt warlords, drug traffickers and even the Taliban.
"Just to hide their bigotry and crimes, that's why they are bringing these soldiers to court," Joya said.
Last week, she wrote in London's The Guardian newspaper that "We believe that the brutal actions of these 'kill teams' reveal the aggression and racism which is part and parcel of the entire military occupation. While these photos are new, the murder of innocents is not."
Her words alarmed some Washington residents with ties to the military. One woman called in during a radio interview Joya gave this week to argue that the actions of the soldiers in the alleged "kill team" are reprehensible to soldiers.
"The actions of few do not reflect the attitude of many," said Jennifer Sloan, a military spouse who lives at Lewis-McChord and followed a debate about Joya at thenewstribune.com Monday.
The Army contends it's holding soldiers accountable for their misconduct.
In 2005, Joya, in her mid-20s, was the youngest person elected to Afghanistan's parliament. She was censured by colleagues in 2007 after she criticized some of them for being corrupt warlords. Since, Joya has lived "underground" in Kabul out of fear that she could be killed for her political activism.
She urges a withdrawal of American forces because the costs of the war are too high for civilians.
Last year was a bloody one for noncombatants, according to the United Nations. It counted 2,777 civilian deaths, 2,080 of which were attributed to the Taliban.
In recent months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sharply criticized accidental civilian deaths caused by NATO strikes.
Gen. David Petraeus, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, has responded by stressing the importance of protecting civilians and calling for investigations into the most serious incidents. That emphasis led to a 52 percent decline in civilian deaths caused by NATO air strikes, the U.N. report says.
"We cannot harm the people that we are there to help protect," Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month in an update on the Afghan war.
Joya wants to see Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama held accountable for the civilian deaths that have taken place in their tenure.
"The headlines say, 'What happens if we leave Afghanistan?' " Joya said. "They should say, 'What happens while we are in Afghanistan?' "