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Photos of Troops With Dead Insurgents Add to U.S.-Afghan Tensions

April 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Once again today, U.S. officials found themselves apologizing for pictures of American troops in Afghanistan. They emerged as the U.S. tries to wind down the Afghan war and the Taliban tries to step up the pressure.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: I have strongly condemned what we see in those photos.

JEFFREY BROWN: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke just hours after The Los Angeles Times published two images. In one, U.S. soldiers and Afghan police posed with the severed legs of a suicide bomber, seen here partially blurred. The other photo appeared to show the hand of a dead insurgent atop the shoulder of a smiling American.

The incidents, from 2010, involved members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. They were tasked with identifying dead Afghan insurgents through iris scans and fingerprinting.

Secretary Panetta addressed the issue from Brussels, where he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a NATO meeting on Afghanistan.

LEON PANETTA: That behavior that was depicted in those photos absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values. This is not who we are. And it’s certainly not who we represent when it comes to the great majority of men and women in uniform who are serving there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The secretary apologized on behalf of the U.S. government and said an investigation has already begun.

LEON PANETTA: So, wherever those facts lead, we will take the appropriate action.

If rules and regulations are found to have been violated, then those individuals will be held accountable.

JEFFREY BROWN: A White House spokesman called the images — quote — “reprehensible.” The Times said they were among 18 photos provided by an anonymous soldier.

And in his remarks today, Secretary Panetta added that the military had urged The Times not to publish the images, fearing the Taliban would use them to incite anti-American sentiment.

LEON PANETTA: 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 that. I’m 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: The photos were the latest in a series of incidents since the year began that have made U.S.-Afghan relations increasingly tense.

In January, video emerged that showed U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, violent protests and revenge killings broke out after U.S. troops accidentally burned Korans. And last month, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians in two villages. Most were women and children.

All of this comes as the Taliban steps up its attacks, including last weekend’s 18-hour assault in Kabul. At the same time, the U.S. and its coalition partners are trying to finalize plans to withdraw combat troops in 2014.