At least two US Marines face potential prosecution for urinating on Afghan corpses in a video that spread globally, complicating US talks with the Taliban.
The Marine Corps has identified two of the four Marines depicted in the video with the corpses of three Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, a Marine Corps official said.
The two men, part of a sniper unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, served in Afghanistan last year from March to September, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is under investigation. The other two Americans in the video have since left the unit and haven't been identified, the official said.
The video comes as a blow to a Marine Corps that prides itself on a reputation for rectitude, said Jack Hoban, who was a Marine officer and now teaches ethics courses to Marines.
"We're all universally disgusted by it and ashamed," Hoban, the president of Resolution Group International LLC of Spring Lake, New Jersey, said in an interview.
While training teaches Marines to respect all life, "people under stress sometimes do things that are counter to their training and their ethics, particularly when they're young," he said.
The video appears to show four Marines urinating on three Afghan corpses that are lying on the ground. An American voice can be heard saying, "Have a great day, buddy," while another says, "He likes his shower."
Confirmation that Marines participated in the video bolstered evidence that the video is authentic, raising tensions with Afghan leaders when the US is conducting talks with the Taliban. US officials condemned the video and sought to repair the damage it may cause.
"It is absolutely inconsistent with American values, with the standards of behavior that we expect from our military personnel," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department Thursday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the video "utterly deplorable" and spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone on Thursday to relay his concern.
An incident that may have gone almost unnoticed in earlier wars can become an international flashpoint in a digital age, when videos spread across the Internet within hours, said Clay Shirky, who teaches social media in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.
Shirky said the Marines probably made the video to show it to a few friends, never thinking that it would be distributed widely.
"This is the invisible audience problem," Shirky said in an interview. "The minute it's outside the initial circle of trust, you've lost control of it. Marines are not used to the idea that a video that's only in the hands of other Marines may get out in the world."
General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, requested an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, along with an internal probe by a Marine general officer and senior attorney.
"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 yesterday in a written statement.
Karzai's press office urged the US military in a statement to apply "the most severe punishment" if Marines are found to have desecrated bodies.
Even as the investigation proceeds, both US officials and the Taliban said they intend to continue talks as planned.
The Taliban said on Jan. 3 that it planned to open an office in Qatar for peace talks with the US and its allies, marking the militant group's first public step toward negotiations to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan. While a Taliban spokesman said the video won't disrupt plans for negotiations, he portrayed it as typical American behavior.
"This video will not affect our negotiation in the future," Zabihullah Mujahed, the spokesman, said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. "Americans have always committed bigger crimes in which they dishonored Taliban and civilians. We've seen this video and we consider this the most disrespectful, inhuman and immoral act."
The negotiations will remain focused on prisoner exchanges, he said. In a statement yesterday, the Taliban said the talks don't "mean a surrender from jihad" or acceptance of the Afghan constitution.
Clinton sent her top envoy to Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, to meet with Karzai next week to ensure his support.
"We will continue to support efforts that will be Afghan- led and Afghan-owned to pursue the possibility of reconciliation and peace," Clinton said Thursday at the State Department.
The US has said it will hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan government in 2014.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the video "does great damage" and those who participated in it should be punished.
"It makes me so sad," McCain said Thursday on the "CBS This Morning" program.
The potential for damage to the US's standing in Afghanistan was reflected in comments from an Afghan tribal elder.
"Both Americans and Taliban are not human," Zargul Nazari said in a telephone interview from Kabul. "Taliban cut our people's hands and nose, and Americans urinate on their dead bodies. Do you think peace can come through urinating on the dead bodies?"