The uproar over an online video that appears to show the incident comes at a particularly difficult political juncture for the Obama administration, which has cautiously been talking up the planned resumption of peace discussions with the Taliban.
The US Marine Corps promptly promised an investigation, and condemned the alleged actions in advance. “While we have not yet verified the origin or authenticity of this video, the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps,” read a statement released Wednesday.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued an even sharper rebuke. “I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” he said in a statement released Thursday. “Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”
Despite the initial muted response among top Afghan officials, the episode does not bode well for the administration’s resumption of talks with the Taliban, which could be set back by fresh allegations of abuse of Afghans, even those who are deceased, at the hands of the US military.
“Such action will leave a very, very bad impact on peace efforts,” Arsala Rahmani, the top negotiator for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, said. “Looking at such action, the Taliban can easily recruit young people.”
The video has the potential as well to reopen old wounds regarding the US military’s mistreatment of civilians and captured enemy combatants in its care. As recently as yesterday, a US Marine testified that his commanding officer called for violent retaliation just before his squad killed two dozen Iraqis, including women and children, in 2005 at Haditha in Iraq. The Marine investigation into the killings at Haditha was criticized for a lack of transparency.
Some have questioned whether the latest video might prompt a renewed examination of the culture of the Marine Corps, which has long been a point of mixed pride among US officials. “The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, in one of the more famous descriptions of the branch. “Thank God for the United States Marine Corps.”
It is a quote emblazoned on travel coffee mugs sold by the Marine Corps Association, the professional association for both active duty and retired Marines.
The head of US Central Command, which has responsibility for running the war in Afghanistan, had his own tough-talking run-in, for which he earned a stern warning in 2005. “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” Marine Corps General James Mattis said. “You know guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot ‘em.”
America’s top Marine, Commandant General James Amos, emphasized in his own statement that the behavior apparently depicted on the tapes is an aberration “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.”
He has requested that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) “pull together a team of their very best agents and immediately assign them” to investigate. He added that he is also luanching an internal inquiry – all a nod to the political sensitivities the video has unleashed. “Rest assured that the institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved,” Amos said.
In an effort to smooth over relations, Mr. Panetta placed a call Thursday to President Karzai. “The Secretary expressed his view in the footage is utterly deplorable, and that it does not reflect the standards or values American troops are sworn to uphold,” according to a statement released by Pentagon press secretary George Little.
US defense officials are now waiting to see how Mr. Karzai, who must approve the resumption of any US talks with the Taliban, will respond in the days to come.