WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized Wednesday for gruesome, newly revealed photographs that show U.S. soldiers posing with the bloodied remains of dead insurgents in Afghanistan. He said war can lead young troops to “foolish decisions” and expressed concern the photos could incite fresh violence against Americans.
The White House called the two-year-old photos “reprehensible,” joining Panetta and other top military officials in expressing regret for the latest in a string of embarrassing missteps by the U.S. military in a war that’s built on earning the trust and confidence of ordinary Afghans. In recent months, American troops have been caught up in controversies over burning Muslim holy books, urinating on Afghan corpses, an alleged massacre of 17 Afghan villagers and other misdeeds.
“This is war. 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,” 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.”
“My apology is on behalf of the Department of Defense and the U.S. government,” Panetta told a news conference in Brussels following a meeting of NATO allies at which the way ahead in Afghanistan was the central topic.
The photos were published in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times. One shows members of the 82nd Airborne Division posing in 2010 with Afghan police holding the severed legs of a suicide bomber. The same platoon a few months later was sent to investigate the remains of three insurgents reported to have accidentally blown themselves up – and soldiers again posed and mugged for a photo with the remains, the newspaper said.
A photo from the second incident appears to show the hand of a dead insurgent resting on a U.S. soldier’s shoulder as the soldier smiles.
Panetta said he had urged the newspaper not to publish the photos, which it said were given by a member of the 82nd Airborne.
“The reason for that is those kinds of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost by the publication of similar photos in the past,” he said in Brussels.
There was no evidence of a violent Afghan backlash in the first hours following the photographs’ publication.
In fact, there was no immediate comment from the Afghan government or President Hamid Karzai’s office, and many officials said they were not aware of the pictures, which were taken in Zabul province. The governor of the province, Ashraf Nasary, said he could not comment because he did not know about the incident or who was involved.
Mark Jacobson, an international affairs expert at the German Marshall Fund and a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said the picture-taking incident appeared to reflect a failure of military leadership.
“I think the challenge is that you can never completely eliminate incidents like this from happening on the battlefield,” Jacobson said. “You can only reduce the likelihood that they take place.” He said the horrors of war sometimes lead to such behavior by soldiers.
“I think it’s a way of distancing themselves from the battlefield, a way of the mind trying to dehumanize something that is as brutal as war.”
The 82nd Airborne, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., confirmed that the pictured soldiers are members of the 1st battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade. The brigade returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan in August 2010. The 82nd Airborne referred questions about the matter to the Pentagon.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon, George Wright, said, “We do not condone service members engaging in such behavior or possessing related materials. This matter remains under investigation by the unit.”
Gen. John Allen, top commander of U.S. and all international forces in Afghanistan, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the photos even before they were published. He said they represented a violation of a policy on the handling of enemy remains that dictates they be treated as humanely as possible.
“The incident depicted in the LA Times’ photographs represents a serious error in judgment by several soldiers who have acted out of ignorance and unfamiliarity with U.S. Army values,” Allen said, adding that commanders “will collaborate with Afghan authorities and carefully examine the facts and circumstances shown in these photos.”
Allen was joined by Panetta and other senior American officials in condemning the actions depicted in the photos. President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney, called the picture-taking “reprehensible.” He said Obama favors an investigation. The Times said that a soldier provided the newspaper with a series of 18 photos of soldiers posing with corpses. The unidentified soldier served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne and said the photos pointed to a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops, the newspaper reported.