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Troop Photos With Dead Afghans: How Embarrassing Episodes Affect U.S. Mission

April 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned photos published Wednesday of soldiers posing with dead Afghan insurgents. Jeffrey Brown discusses how the latest in a series of U.S. humiliations might shape military efforts and U.S.-Afghan relations with The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock and retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: For more, we go to Craig Whitlock, a Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, and retired Army Colonel Bob Killebrew. He served in Vietnam and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

Craig Whitlock, what more have you learned about this incident, what the soldiers were doing, what might have led to this?

CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Well, we do know that this unit, the photos were taken in 2010, so a couple years ago. The unit came back later this year, but the unit has since redeployed to Afghanistan.

And the Army investigation is trying to figure out where these soldiers were. The Army says they know who most of them were, but it’s unclear if some of them are back in the battlefield, or some of them are back home or with other units. And that’s something we’re trying to figure out that’s, where are these guys now?

JEFFREY BROWN: How seriously is the military taking this after several episodes recently?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: I think they’re taking it very seriously.

As we’ve seen in this pattern of unfortunate incidents of misconduct since January, that the Pentagon, the field commanders in Afghanistan and, even the White House quickly apologize, they say they’re going to investigate, and they do. Sometimes, it takes some time. We still haven’t seen the results to the investigation into the Quran burning, the Marine video or if discipline has been handed out in those cases.

So, sometimes, the investigations can take quite a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: Col. Killebrew, what do you see in these photos, and what steps should the military be taking now?

COL. BOB KILLEBREW (RET)., U.S. Army: Well, I think, first of all, the secretary’s statement was right on the mark.

We don’t do this in warfare. It’s deplorable. I think that the government, the military will follow its internal procedures and track this down. I would add two other things, though. One is this happened two years ago in a unit that I know from my own experience has high standards of leadership and training.

So whatever happened, it was — it didn’t reflect on the unit. It was probably a small group of soldiers. The kind of soldiers that you tell off to do this kind of identification on bodies are typically intelligence soldiers and not combat — not direct combat soldiers.

And the second thing is that it happened two years ago. This is an event that is well behind us now. And I wish that it had not come up, in that it’s going to impede, I’m afraid, our efforts to train up the Afghan Army and leave a credible force behind us when we get out in 2014.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are worried that this might have a larger impact or lead people to say — to come to larger conclusions about discipline or the situation overall there?

COL. BOB KILLEBREW: I’m not concerned about that so much as I’m concerned about the impact on our own people here.

I think the Afghan population has shown itself to understand that these kinds of things happen in warfare. There was — as you know, there was mass unrest for the Quran burning. But when things like this happen in battle or in — on the fringes of battle, the Afghan population seems to take them a lot more calmly than some of us do.

I’m concerned about the effect of this on the U.S. will and the U.S. determination to see this war through to the handoff to effective Afghan forces in 2014. That’s what we have to be working toward. And incidents like this dishearten the American population and cause fears that we’re over there doing these things in a widespread way, when we’re obviously not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Craig Whitlock, do we know whether there’s been much reaction in Afghanistan yet?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: There hasn’t been much reaction in Afghanistan yet. It’s so early there.

I would like to follow up on what the colonel said, though. I would point out The L.A. Times reported that they were given these photos by a soldier from that unit who was concerned about a breakdown in discipline and a lack of leadership. And, as I mentioned, this unit has gone back to Afghanistan.

So, I don’t have inside knowledge of what this brigade’s been up to. But according to The Los Angeles Times, they said it was brought to their attention by someone within the ranks who was concerned about discipline and leadership there and that he was clearly concerned this could resurface again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we know why — staying with you, Craig, do we know why they weren’t released until now? Have they been floating around for two years? And of course there are more than the two that were just displayed today.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s right. The Los Angeles Times said they were given 18. They only published two. Most of the others were more graphic. The Army says they have actually been investigating this since early March.

What happened in the interim is unclear, but, again, the difference is that this unit has since gone back to Afghanistan, and I think perhaps that was the difference here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Col. Killebrew, we heard Secretary Panetta say that he wished that The L.A. Times had not gone ahead and published these. Do you agree?

COL. BOB KILLEBREW: I agree with the secretary. It’s a spectacular news story, but it’s two years old.

This is a time when we need to be building confidence with the Afghans. The vast, vast majority of our troops are over there doing selfless service. And a thing like this doesn’t help us, doesn’t help the United States, and ultimately doesn’t help the Afghans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Craig, I should say first that we did invite The Los Angeles Times and they weren’t able or willing to join us tonight. I’m not going to put you in their seat, but what are they saying about why they went ahead with this?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: I think the editor of The Los Angeles Times said in their newspaper today that the reason they did is they have an obligation to tell readers the truth about what’s going on in a war zone, and warts and all.

And certainly the L.A. Times, The Washington Post and others publish lots of stories about acts of heroism and the good things that the vast majority of members of armed services do over there. But we also have an obligation to publish when misconduct happens. And that’s unfortunate, but the public deserves to know the reality of war.

And, sometimes, as the secretary of defense said today, war is very ugly and violent. And people need to understand that, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, meantime, Craig, the military is preparing for possible reprisals? They clearly voiced concerns about it.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s right. The Pentagon did say today that they are taking additional measures to protect U.S. troops and they’re worried that this could lead to additional risk for soldiers in the front.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Craig Whitlock and Col. Bob Killebrew, thank you both very much.