The White House called the two-year-old photos "reprehensible," joining Panetta and other top military officials in expressing regret for the latest in a string of embarrassing missteps by the U.S. military in a war that's built on earning the trust and confidence of ordinary Afghans. In recent months, American troops have been caught up in controversies over burning Muslim holy books, urinating on Afghan corpses, an alleged massacre of 17 Afghan villagers and other misdeeds.
"This is war. 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," Panetta said. "I am 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."
"My apology is on behalf of the Department of Defense and the U.S. government," Panetta told a news conference in Brussels following a meeting of NATO allies at which the way ahead in Afghanistan was the central topic.
The photos were published in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times. One shows members of the 82nd Airborne Division posing in 2010 with Afghan police holding the severed legs of a suicide bomber. The same platoon a few months later was sent to investigate the remains of three insurgents reported to have accidentally blown themselves up - and soldiers again posed and mugged for a photo with the remains, the newspaper said.
A photo from the second incident appears to show the hand of a dead insurgent resting on a U.S. soldier's shoulder as the soldier smiles.
Panetta said he had urged the newspaper not to publish the photos, which it said it were given by a member of the 82nd Airborne.
"The reason for that is those kinds of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost by the publication of similar photos in the past," he said in Brussels. His British counterpart, Philip Hammond, said he regretted the "besmirching of the good name" of all coalition troops who act properly.
There was no evidence of a violent Afghan backlash in the first hours following the photographs' publication.
In fact, there was no immediate comment from the Afghan government or President Hamid Karzai's office, and many officials said they were not aware of the pictures, which were taken in Zabul province. The governor of the province, Ashraf Nasary, said he could not comment because he did not know about the incident or who was involved.
Mark Jacobson, an international affairs expert at the German Marshall Fund and a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said the picture-taking incident appeared to reflect a failure of military leadership.
"I think the challenge is that you can never completely eliminate incidents like this from happening on the battlefield," Jacobson said. "You can only reduce the likelihood that they take place." He said the horrors of war sometimes lead to such behavior by soldiers.
"I think it's a way of distancing themselves from the battlefield, a way of the mind trying to dehumanize something that is as brutal as war."
The 82nd Airborne, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., confirmed that the pictured soldiers are members of the 1st battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade. The brigade returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan in August 2010. The 82nd Airborne referred questions about the matter to the Pentagon.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon, George Wright, said, "We do not condone service members engaging in such behavior or possessing related materials. This matter remains under investigation by the unit."
The colonel who commanded the brigade in Afghanistan, Brian Drinkwine, did not respond to an email request for comment. The brigade's Facebook page includes an account of the September 2010 ceremony at Fort Bragg in which Drinkwine relinquished command, quoting him as praising his soldiers' efforts and professionalism.
"The Taliban feared you, the people trusted you and your Afghan partners respected you and you inspired them," he is quoted as saying.
Gen. John Allen, top commander of U.S. and all international forces in Afghanistan, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the photos even before they were published. He said they represented a violation of a policy on the handling of enemy remains that dictates they be treated as humanely as possible.
"The incident depicted in the LA Times' photographs represents a serious error in judgment by several soldiers who have acted out of ignorance and unfamiliarity with U.S. Army values," Allen said, adding that commanders "will collaborate with Afghan authorities and carefully examine the facts and circumstances shown in these photos."
Allen was joined by Panetta and other senior American officials in condemning the actions depicted in the photos. President Barack Obama's chief spokesman, Jay Carney, called the picture-taking "reprehensible." He said Obama favors an investigation but did not know if the president had seen the photos.
In an initial statement on Panetta's behalf, his press secretary, George Little, said, "Anyone found responsible for this inhuman conduct will be held accountable in accordance with our military justice system."
The U.S. military image in Afghanistan has taken a beating in recent months. In January, U.S. Marines were found to have made a video of themselves urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, what the military said was the accidental burning of Qurans triggered violent protests and revenge killings of six Americans. And last month, a U.S. soldier left his base and allegedly killed 17 civilians, mainly women and children.
The Times said that a soldier provided the newspaper with a series of 18 photos of soldiers posing with corpses. The unidentified soldier served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne and said the photos pointed to a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops, the newspaper reported.
In its story, the newspaper quoted editor Davan Maharaj saying: "After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers 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 U.S. troops."
Personal cameras and videos have captured misbehavior many times in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most notorious case was Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi prison where U.S. military police photographed themselves physically and sexually abusing detainees. Photos showed them holding one prisoner on a dog leash, another with a prisoner hooded and wires attached to him in a mock electrocution, another with naked prisoners stacked in a pyramid.
Release of the photos in 2004 fostered international condemnation. It complicated international relations for the U.S. and provoked debate about whether harsh interrogation techniques approved by the Pentagon amounted to torture. In all, 11 U.S. soldiers were tried and convicted of crimes and five others were punished administratively. Punishments for the 16 included reprimands, hard labor, demotions, fines and up to 10 years in prison for one soldier.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)