For the second time in three months, the most senior U.S. officials in Afghanistan have had to condemn images of soldiers disrespecting the bodies of their enemies.
Today, even before the Los Angeles Times had published photos it had obtained that appear to show American soldiers posing next to the mutilated remains of Taliban insurgents in 2010, the America's top diplomat and military commander rebuked the soldiers in the photos and promised investigations.
The U.S.'s quick response today and in January -- when video of U.S. Marines urinating on insurgents' bodies was called "inexplicable" -- appear to be attempts to convince an already skeptical Afghan public that not all Americans serving in Afghanistan treat dead bodies in ways that are forbidden by Islam.
But in this case, Afghan and American officials both said they did not expect that the new photos -- only two out of 18 given to the Los Angeles Times, according to the newspaper -- would incite widespread protest. Many Afghans shrug when they see evidence of U.S. mistreatment of Taliban fighters, and in the case of previous scandals, many Afghans have shown they are more incensed by mistreatment of religious texts, most notably the Quran, than they are of fellow Afghans.
Still, U.S. officials rushed to try and get ahead of the story, releasing almost simultaneous statements approved by senior officials in the State Department and the military.
"This behavior and these images are entirely inconsistent with the values of ISAF and all service members of the fifty ISAF countries serving in Afghanistan," said Gen. John Allen in a statement, referring to the U.S.-led coalition, the International Security Assistance Force. "These actions undermine the daily sacrifices of thousands of ISAF troops who continue to serve honorably in Afghanistan."
Added U.S ambassador Ryan Crocker: "Such actions are morally repugnant, dishonor the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and civilians who have served with distinction in Afghanistan, and do not represent the core values of the United States or our military."
The Los Angeles Times reported that the photos were taken in 2010, when members of the 1st brigade, 82nd airborne served in Zabul, a small province in southern Afghanistan.
The photographs depict two separate incidents, according to the newspaper. In one, the soldiers arrived at a police station to inspect body parts of a bomber who had blown himself up. As Afghan police officers are holding up the corpse's legs, two Americans pose for a photo, grinning with their thumbs up.
In the second incident, which the newspaper said occurred a few months later, the same platoon was called by Afghan police to take fingerprints of Taliban fighters who had mistakenly blown themselves up when a bomb they were burying in the road exploded early. One soldier places the dead bomber's hands on another soldier's shoulder as the photo is snapped.
The Los Angeles Times reported that a soldier from within the unit provided the photos on condition of anonymity. He told the newspaper that, in the second case, the soldiers in the photograph "were frustrated, just pissed off -- their buddies had been blown up by IEDs [improvised explosive devices]… so they sort of just celebrated" when they realized the insurgents had accidentally killed themselves.
U.S. officials did not dispute the authenticity of the photos, which they said the newspaper first showed them in the last few weeks.
"It needs to be fully investigated and that investigation is already underway," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said today in Brussels. "Wherever these facts lead we'll take the appropriate action."
Military Has 'Identified Almost All The Individuals'
The newspaper reported that seven soldiers appear in the photos, and the military has "identified almost all the individuals," according to Christopher Grey, spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigative Command.
The Los Angeles Times reported that military officials requested them not to print the photos, but that it decided to go ahead in part because the soldier who gave the newspaper "expressed the hope that publication would help ensure that alleged security shortcomings at two U.S. bases in Afghanistan in 2010 were not repeated."
That seemed to suggest that the soldier objected to what his fellow soldiers had done and believed their actions and possibly those of his commanders helped reduce the unit's security. Around the time the photos were taken, two Taliban attacks on two of the brigade's bases killed half a dozen soldiers -- bases that the soldier who provided the photos told the newspaper were not sufficiently protected.
Los Angeles Times Editor Davan Maharaj said that publication "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."
In Brussels, however, Panetta chastised the newspaper, saying its decision could endanger troops serving in Afghanistan.
"This is war and I know that war is ugly and it's violent. And I know that young people sometimes caught up in the moment make some very foolish decisions. I am not excusing… but neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people or to our relationship with the Afghan people," Panetta said. "We had urged the L.A. Times not to run these photos and the reason for that is those kinds of photos have been used by the enemy to incite violence and lives have been lost as a result of the publication of similar photos in the past. So we regret that they were published."
The same brigade is now back in Afghanistan, although not the entire unit. U.S. officials today suggested that few, if any, of the soldiers in the photos had been redeployed.