Newly-published photos showing US soldiers posing with the gory remains of several Afghan suicide bombers has provoked harsh condemnation from the US military. The photos are the latest in a long line of scandals involving US troops in Afghanistan.
Some of the 18 photos published by the Los Angeles Times depict a morbid array of often-grinning soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division posing with and manipulating the body parts of suicide bombers.
In one photograph, US soldiers, along with Afghan police, are holding up the dangling, disembodied legs of one insurgent. In another, two soldiers pose with a corpse whose middle finger had been raised.
The American serviceman who anonymously handed the photos over to the daily said he wanted to highlight “the breakdown in leadership and discipline” that had created a security risk for troops serving in the country.
The soldier behind the leak was serving with the 82nd Airborne's 4th Brigade Combat Team in Zabul province in 2010 back when the photos were taken.
Defense secretary Leon Panetta apologized for the photos at a NATO foreign and defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.
While “strongly condemning” the acts depicted in the photographs, Panetta said that young people "can make foolish decisions" in war.
NATO’s secretary-general has also condemned the photos, saying he hopes their publication will not impact troop security in the country.
Although Panetta called for a thorough investigation, the Pentagon had actually already initiated a probe after first being shown the photos. At the time the Pentagon had asked the paper not to publish any of the images – a request that was ultimately ignored.
Following their publication, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) released a statement “strongly condemning” the LA Times’ decision to run the photographs.
The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan Gen. John R. Allen said "this behavior and these images are entirely inconsistent with the values of ISAF and all service members of the 50 ISAF countries serving in Afghanistan," the DOD-based Stars and Stripes newspaper quotes him as saying.
Saying "these actions undermine the daily sacrifices of thousands of ISAF troops who continue to serve honorably in Afghanistan," Gen. Allen promised to “collaborate with Afghan authorities” to investigate the matter and determine responsibility and accountability of those involved.”
A Pentagon spokesman told the LA Times the two-year-old photos had the potential “to indict them all [ISAF forces] in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless causalities.”
But the LA Times’ editor said the decision to publish was part and parcel of their mission 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 US troops.”
The publication of the images comes at a time when US-Afghan relations have been strained to breaking point after a series of inflammatory incidents.
In March, a “lone” US soldier allegedly slaughtered 17 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in Kandahar province. Afghan officials rejected the US account of events, saying multiple assailants had carried out the attack. The previous month, the accidental burning of copies of the Koran at a US base sparked riots that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
And in January, video surfaced on the internet showing four US marines urinating on slain Afghan men. US officials identified the four marines in the video and launched an investigation, while the Secretary of State said they may be guilty of war crimes.
However, despite attempts by Washington to manage the fallout from the incident, the blowback was almost immediate. Later that month, an Afghan soldier who killed four French soldiers and wounded 15 others in eastern Afghanistan said he had been “strongly motivated” to attack after seeing the footage of "foreign soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses."
Former Afghan MP Daoud Sultanzoy told RT the legacy of such incidents could forever blot the reputation of the West in the eyes of Afghans.
He says a culture of instant gratification has even affected “wars like this,” leading to a lack of “stamina” and “perseverance” on the part of US troops.
Sultanzoy believes if the problem is not addressed, it “will create more room in poverty-stricken and corruption-stricken countries for extremism, fundamentalism, and the resulting chaos…that will stem from that.”
Conn Hallinan, contributing editor at Foreign Policy in Focus, stresses that many US soldiers are on their fifth or sixth tour of Afghanistan, which makes them “a little crazy.”
“It’s deployment after deployment after deployment. I think these troops are out of hand and it’s understandable. This is the kind of war that we are in and it’s a major reason why we want to get out,” he told RT.
Hallinan believes that the US military, frustrated over its inability to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, are shifting their anger onto innocent parties. “Local people are caught in a very difficult position because if a roadside bomb is set and they tell the Americans about it, then maybe the Taliban will come after them. If the local people don’t say anything and the bomb goes off and kills some Americans, then the Americans come after them.”