Mr. Panetta issued a statement Wednesday addressing a Los Angeles Times report that U.S. soldiers posed with dead insurgents’ limbs, saying he strongly rejects the conduct depicted in the 2-year-old photographs.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is “disappointed [with] the decision to publish two years after the incident,” according to a pool report of Mr. Carney’s Wednesday briefing with reporters on Air Force One.
Mr. Carney also condemned the conduct of the U.S. soldiers who posed with the corpses: “[It’s] reprehensible and does not in any way represent the high standards of the U.S. military.”
The photos’ publication follows a string of scandals in Afghanistan in which Marines were filmed urinating on insurgents’ corpses, U.S. soldiers accidentally burned Korans and a U.S. soldier charged with killing 17 Afghan civilians in a rampage. Investigations of those incidents are pending.
What’s more, the latest scandal comes as NATO is preparing a withdrawal of all international combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. At a meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers in Brussels, Mr. Panetta apologized for the photos, saying they do not depict “who we are.”
“This will add to the overall argument that, at this point, having a large, foreign military force in Afghanistan can be as destabilizing as it is stabilizing, and we need to accelerate the transition,” said Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, expressed concern about the cumulative effect of the scandals making it harder for Americans to support the war.
“It is yet another black eye for a military that has earned the appreciation and the admiration of the American people,” he said.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the scandals hurt politically.
“Primarily, making it harder for leaders to keep their populations supportive of the combined effort,” he said.
But Col. Nagl said the new photo scandal likely will not rile the Afghan public as much as the Koran burning did.
“The Afghans expect that in war, bodies of the enemy will be abused,” he said. “But what they can’t understand is that after 10 years of war we would know them so poorly that we would think that it was OK to burn the Koran in a trash dump. It was an insult to their religion, culture and society.”
The photographs show U.S. soldiers, reportedly from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, posing with the body parts after unsuccessful suicide-bombing attempts.
President Obama was briefed on the photos, but Mr. Carney said he didn’t know if Mr. Obama had actually seen them.