Pentagon officials went into overdrive Thursday in a bid to prevent a controversial video, which shows a group of Marines urinating on militants' corpses, from turning the Afghan public against the U.S. war effort.
The military confirmed the video's authenticity, and said the Marines in it were from the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned the behavior Thursday and telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he found the images deplorable.
"This conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military and doesn't reflect the standards or values our armed forces are sworn to uphold," Mr. Panetta said in a statement.
The video, which emerged on YouTube and other sites, runs less than a minute. It depicts four men dressed in Marine Corps combat gear urinating on three corpses on the ground. "Have a great day, buddy," one of the Marines is heard as saying.
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Karzai called the acts "inhuman." A statement from the president's office called for an immediate investigation and "severe punishment" for the U.S. troops featured in the video.
Even before Pentagon officials had determined whether the footage was authentic, they quickly condemned the conduct. The full-court press is aimed at conveying to the Afghan and U.S. publics that the incident was an aberration.
Mr. Panetta's comments were echoed by Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization command in Afghanistan.
The service members' behavior is deplorable and "not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces," the U.S.-led military coalition said in a statement. Such an act "dishonors the sacrifices of every service member representing the 50 nations of the coalition."
Pentagon officials said they were heartened by both a statement by the Taliban that the incident shouldn't derail peace talks, and by the reaction of Mr. Karzai in his conversation with Mr. Panetta.
Defense officials said that Mr. Karzai told Mr. Panetta he appreciated the call and was encouraged by the strong and quick U.S. reaction to the incident.
Western officials in Kabul, meanwhile, described the statement Mr. Karzai issued before the conversation as levelheaded and not inflammatory. In the past, Mr. Karzai has used similar incidents to stoke anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan.
The Taliban condemned the video, saying in a statement that U.S. forces have committed "war crimes, inhuman and immoral deeds" through the 10 years of war.
"Soon American invaders will witness the punishment of such deeds and will face the extreme hatred of Afghans," the Taliban said Thursday. But a spokesman also told several news organizations by telephone that the outcry over the video won't affect the insurgents' tentative
During the Iraq war, images and accounts of wrongdoing by U.S. military personnel, such as pictures of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, turned Iraqi public opinion against America.
In Afghanistan, far fewer people have televisions, or even electricity, meaning the latest images aren't likely to spread widely. Accounts are likely to spread by word of mouth, though, and could fuel more violence against the coalition by Afghans who feel that the disrespect shown to the dead violates Islam. In Islam, the dead must be washed and their bodies buried within 24 hours.
The Taliban themselves have a tainted record on that score. When they took over Kabul in 1996, they brutally killed Mohammad Najibullah, the deposed communist president who was seeking refuge at a U.N. compound in the city. They hung his castrated corpse and that of his brother from a traffic light on a busy street in Kabul for all to see, in violation of Islamic tradition. The Taliban in recent years frequently hung suspected government spies' corpses from trees in areas they control.
A Western military official in Kabul said the coalition first learned of the video late Wednesday night local time from website Liveleaks.
Military investigators are now trying to identify the remaining two Marines in the video and the individual who took it. The investigation isn't currently centered on how the video came to be posted online, said a military official. The Marines who have been indentified are facing questioning but haven't been arrested or detained, the official said.
Desecrating the bodies of enemy combatants is a violation of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. The Marines involved could face a court-martial.
At the moment, there are no plans to review the cultural sensitivity training U.S. Forces receive, the Western military official in Kabul said, but "leaders are re-emphasizing our values."
By Thursday night, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the deputy commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, was preparing to send out a letter to coalition troops reminding them of the "proper conduct in war and conflict" and the coalition's "values—differentiating between right and wrong and treating insurgent bodies with respect."