A video that appears to show US Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans has provoked widespread revulsion around the world.
The footage, which was posted online, purports to show four men in Marine uniforms urinating on the bloodied bodies of three men dressed in Afghan clothing.
The origin of the video is not known. The Pentagon says it is checking the authenticity of the video, but there is nothing to indicate that the film is not genuine. Leon Panetta, the US Defense Secretary, called the behaviour in the footage "utterly deplorable". He said he had ordered Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) Commander, General John Allen, to "immediately and fully investigate the incident".
He said: "This conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military and does not reflect the standards or values our armed forces are sworn to uphold. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent."
The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has also condemned the video. The Afghan Ministry of Defence said it was "shocked" by the acts portrayed.
The reaction of Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a tribal elder from Helmand, was typical of the kind of disgust being voiced by Afghans. "This type of action is not acceptable either in Islam or Christianity – in fact, all religions," he told The Independent.
"This video really dishonours Afghans and those who did this are not humane; they are wild people... animals."
He pointed out that this type of behaviour undermines the attempts of US servicemen to win the loyalty and trust of Afghans. "The US has been trying for a long time to win the hearts of the Afghan people," he said. "But this video will prevent the US from reaching its goal and instead will turn people against them."
The video also prompted concern that it may derail tentative peace talks. The US is poised to restart talks with the Taliban once it has secured the endorsement of Mr Karzai. The US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, who organised secret talks with the Taliban last year, is due to meet with Mr Karzai next week to secure his backing.
Arsala Rahmani, a senior High Peace Council negotiator, said the footage may erode the confidence of those involved in talks. "Such action will leave a very, very bad impact on peace efforts," he said. "Looking at such action, the Taliban can easily recruit young people and tell them that their country has been attacked by Christians and Jews and they must defend it."
But Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, said: "This is not a political process, so the video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange because they are at the preliminary stage."
In the video, one of the Marines is heard saying: "Have a great day, buddy." Then a voice asks: "You got it on the video?" Someone responds: "Yeah." Another person makes a joke.
Zargul Zazari, a Kabul-based shopkeeper, said both sides were as bad as each other. "Both Americans and the Taliban are not human. The Taliban cut people's noses and hands off and Americans urinate on them; these are both crimes against Islamic law. Peace will not come to Afghanistan through urinating on the Taliban."
This episode is another embarrassment for the US. In November, a military court convicted members of a US Army squad – dubbed the "kill team" – who murdered unarmed Afghans in Kandahar, collected their body parts as war trophies and photographed themselves with the bodies. The 2010 killings are considered among the most serious atrocities to emerge from the Afghan war.