U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned and apologized for photos showing U.S. Army soldiers desecrating the corpses of insurgents in Afghanistan.
The photos, taken in 2010 and published yesterday by the Los Angeles Times, show grinning troops mugging for photos with dead insurgents. One shows a smiling soldier with a dead insurgent’s hand on his shoulder. Panetta promised a thorough investigation,
“I have strongly condemned what we see in those photos,” Panetta said at a press conference yesterday in Brussels, where he attended a NATO conference. “That behavior that was depicted in those photos absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values.”
Earlier incidents involving the U.S. military sparked protests in Afghanistan even as public opinion polls show Americans souring on the war.
In January, a video circulated on the Internet showed four U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, President Barack Obama apologized for the burning of Korans on a U.S. air base that triggered riots and more than a dozen deaths. Last month, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly went on a shooting spree and killed 17 Afghan civilians.
“This embarrassment just adds to the list of insults to the Afghan population and reinforces to some that NATO and U.S. coalition forces, with local Afghan police, are just not interested in respecting locals,” said Qamar-ul Huda, a scholar of Islam at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “Unfortunately, it gives Taliban insurgents some more propaganda for their efforts to fight foreigners and government.”
The newly circulated photos are less likely to provoke the mass protests that were triggered after the Koran burnings, which U.S. officials described as an accident and Afghans called a grave desecration of a sacred text, Huda said.
“The Koran burnings fall under another category, where core identity markers felt violated,” Huda said in an e-mail.
Panetta said the Pentagon had urged the Los Angeles Times not to publish the photos.
“The reason for that is those kinds of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence,” Panetta said. “And lives have been lost as a result of the publication of similar photos in the past.”
A soldier serving in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, provided 18 photos on condition of anonymity, according to the newspaper. The soldier said the photos demonstrated a breakdown in leadership and discipline that compromised the safety of the troops.
Decision to Publish
“After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops,” Times Editor Davan Maharaj said in a statement published by the Times.
Panetta said the incident wasn’t discussed at the NATO meeting. “My apology is on behalf of the Department of Defense and the U.S. government,” he said.
Panetta, a former Central Intelligence Agency director who became defense secretary in July, said the Pentagon will take appropriate action if the investigation finds rules and regulations were violated.
“I know that young people sometimes, caught up in the moment, make some very foolish decisions,” Panetta said. “I am not excusing that behavior, but neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people or to our relationship with the Afghan people.”
“I would be a little surprised if there was a major response to it,” said Noah Coburn, a socio-cultural anthropologist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, who has done work in Afghanistan. “In the past, the Afghan public has responded most harshly when U.S troops appear to be attacking their religion, as in the case of Koran desecration, or threatening women, as in the case of night raids,” he said in an e-mail. “These morbid images, I think, primarily support ideas that they already have,” he said of Afghan civilians.