The 18 photographs were taken in 2010 in Zabul province by soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, the newspaper reported. Although the pictures were two years old, the fresh disclosure of misconduct extends a string of recent incidents in which U.S. troops have disrespected the dead, allegedly killed Afghan civilians and desecrated the Koran.
U.S. officials, concerned that the cumulative effect will be the further alienation of an Afghan public weary of foreign military occupation, disavowed the actions depicted in the photographs and said they had started investigations.
In Brussels, where NATO ministers were meeting to discuss the war’s progress, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta apologized. He said he “strongly condemned” the soldiers’ actions but portrayed them as immature reactions to battlefield stress.
“This is war, and I know war is ugly and is violent,” Panetta said. “I know young people sometimes caught up in the moment make some very foolish decisions.”
“I am not excusing that behavior,” he added.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the problems underscored the need to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces as quickly as possible.
“Our presence by its very nature creates tension between us and the local population,” Smith said in an interview Wednesday. “Past a certain point, a foreign presence is as destabilizing as it is stabilizing, and that’s what these incidents are pointing out.”
A series of setbacks
The photographs mark the latest public relations setback for the U.S. military as it seeks to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan.
In January, an Internet video showed Marines laughing as they urinated on the corpses of three insurgent fighters. In February, riots erupted after U.S. service members incinerated copies of the Koran in what NATO officials deemed an accident. In March, an Army staff sergeant was charged with killing 17 Afghan villagers, mostly women and children, in Kandahar province.
Meanwhile, distrust is building between U.S. forces and their Afghan allies. The number of treacherous, lethal attacks by uniformed Afghan soldiers and police officers against NATO troops and trainers has risen substantially this year.
In addition to condemning the actions depicted in the latest batch of battlefield photographs, the Pentagon also criticized the Los Angeles Times for publishing them.
Panetta said defense officials had urged the Times to suppress the pictures. George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, suggested that the newspaper’s decision could put U.S. troops at risk. “The danger is that this material could be used by the enemy to incite violence against U.S. and Afghan service members,” he said in a statement.