Jacksonville, N.C. — The Marine Corps on Friday appointed Lt. Gen. Joe Waldhauser, a three-star general whose area of responsibility includes Afghanistan, to decide what, if any, disciplinary action to take against four Marines who appear in a video that purports to show them urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan.
Waldhauser will name another officer to lead an internal Marine Corps investigation. That investigation will be in addition to a criminal probe already under way by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Waldhauser will determine how to proceed once both investigations are completed.
The four Marines shown in the video are snipers from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune. The unit returned to the Jacksonville, N.C., base last fall. A Marine official said that at least some of the four Marines are no longer in that battalion.
Marine officials said Friday that the men in the video and anyone who helped them make or distribute it could face criminal charges. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent."
The video shows men in Marine combat gear, standing in a semi-circle over three bodies. It is not clear whether the dead were Taliban or civilians or someone else. The title on the posting called them Taliban insurgents but it was unclear who added that title, Marine Corps officials in Washington said.
But the swift condemnation from the White House on down does nothing to blunt the impact of the images.
"It's a gift for the Taliban really, because it reinforces all of their propaganda," said CBS Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan. "They want the world to believe, they want Afghans to believe that the U.S. has no regard for the Afghan people and no regard for Islam."
The investigation into the video has revealed additional photos of the battalion last summer in Afghanistan engaged in inappropriate, possibly embarrassing, behavior.
The reaction from Afghanistan was angry.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the video as "completely inhumane." The Afghan Defense Ministry called it "shocking." And the Taliban issued a statement accusing U.S. forces of committing numerous "indignities" against the Afghan people.
"First they killed the Afghans with mortars, and they then urinated on their bodies," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. "We strongly condemn this inhumane action by the wild American soldiers."
Panetta said the actions, if true, were inexcusable.
"I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms," Panetta's statement said.
Outside the Jacksonville base, reactions were mixed. Paul Brown, an Army veteran said, "They're over there during wartime. What are they supposed to do? Kiss their feet? That's ridiculous."
Larry Cole, the father of a Marine, said, "There should be discipline, yes, but to a certain extent. I mean, you're not killing nobody. The people are already dead."
The video came to light at a delicate time in relations among the United States, Afghanistan's elected government and the Taliban insurgency fighting for both territorial control and cultural and religious preeminence in Afghanistan.
The U.S. is trying to foster peace talks between the Karzai government and the Pakistan-based Taliban high command, and has made unprecedented offers to build trust with the insurgents, including the planned opening of a Taliban political office to oversee talks.
One of the largest obstacles to peace discussions has been widespread Afghan contempt for U.S. military tactics that many — both Taliban sympathizers and not — see as heavy-handed. Opposition to the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan usually centers on civilian casualties from military engagement, although the vast majority of those deaths are caused by the insurgents.
Although the video purports to show Taliban fighters, not civilians, it is likely to resonate with those opposed to the U.S. presence and to peace with the U.S.-backed Karzai government. In his statement, Karzai called on the U.S. military to punish the Marines.
The NATO-led security force in Afghanistan released a statement Thursday saying, "This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces."
The actions "appear to have been conducted by a small group of U.S. individuals, who apparently are no longer serving in Afghanistan," the International Security Assistance Force said. The statement did not identify the personnel or explain why the ISAF thought they had left the country.
Pentagon officials said the criminal investigation would likely look into whether the Marines violated laws of war, which include prohibitions against photographing bodies and detainees and a range of other rules.
In an emailed statement, Taliban spokesman Mujahid said, "During these 10 years American soldiers have tortured our people in various ways, they have shown disrespect to the holy Quran and other holy books, they have burned our bodies, they have killed and tortured our women and children and ... have committed other hateful actions."
Mujahid urged the U.N. and other international groups to end such actions by U.S. troops.
On Wednesday, the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, protested the video in a letter to Panetta.
"We condemn this apparent desecration of the dead as a violation of our nation's military regulations and of international laws of war prohibiting such disgusting and immoral actions," the group wrote.
"If verified as authentic, the video shows behavior that is totally unbecoming of American military personnel and that could ultimately endanger other soldiers and civilians," the letter said.