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US public support for war in Afghanistan continues to tumble amid latest atrocity

US officials were quick to condemn the photos of American soldiers posing with the body parts of dead Taliban fighters, but new public polls show support for the war is waning.

WASHINGTON // The US military is again facing an outcry over the behaviour of its soldiers in Afghanistan.

Although the latest incident took place two years ago, the photos that were released on Wednesday add to a string of troubling episodes, including the massacre of 17 civilians last month.

US officials were quick to condemn the photos of American soldiers posing with the body parts of dead Taliban fighters, reportedly failed suicide bombers. Barack Obama, the US president, ordered an inquiry, and Leon Panetta, the secretary of defence, apologised for what he described as "unacceptable behaviour".

"This is not who we are," Mr Panetta said during a news conference in Brussels during a Nato meeting of defence and foreign ministers.

John McCain, the Republican senator and Vietnam War veteran, called the photos "deplorable and despicable" and said incidents like these harm the image of American soldiers in Afghanistan who otherwise have "the highest standards".

But the damage control - which started before the first pictures were published on Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times - neither assuaged anger in Afghanistan nor averted renewed questions about the US military's conduct there.

The Taliban yesterday vowed revenge for what Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, called "inhumane and provocative" acts. One of the photos showed US military personnel and Afghan police grinning while one US solider held up the severed legs of a corpse.

"This is what the invading Americans teach to their Afghan slaves," a Taliban statement said.

The publication of the photographs comes as US support for the war continues to tumble.

An April 17 poll from Pew Research Center showed a majority of American voters favoured an immediate troop withdrawal. That majority was largest among those who said they would vote for Mr Obama in November's presidential election, with 65 per cent supporting pulling troops out as soon as possible, while 28 per cent were in favour of maintaining a presence until Afghan troops were ready to take over.

The Obama administrations has vowed to pull all troops out by the end of 2014.

Those who said they would vote for Mitt Romney, Mr Obama's likely Republican rival, were more evenly split, with 48 per cent in favour of an immediate pull-out versus 46 who support a presence until Afghan troops can handle security.

Mr Romney has criticised Mr Obama for setting a withdrawal date, suggesting an open-ended occupation would better serve American interests. That is unlikely to appeal to undecided voters, however, where another clear majority, 59 against 31, favour a swift withdrawal.

Just 38 per cent of those asked said the US military effort was going well.

In January, US marines were recorded urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, the burning of Qurans at a US base triggered deadly riots. Last month, a staff sergeant allegedly killed 17 civilians, mainly women and children.

On Wednesday, George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in a statement that the photographs "by no means represent the values or professionalism of the vast majority of US troops serving in Afghanistan today."

But Jacob George, a three-tour veteran of the Afghanistan war and now with Iraq Veterans Against the War, suggested the military had become "master of the narrative of the bad apple" and was failing to take responsibility for the unseemly behaviour of some of the troops.

The army, the former paratrooper said in March after the shooting deaths of the 17 civilians, was overstretched and undermanned and the US department of defence should not escape responsibility for the consequences of "what we are asking these people to do over and over and over again".

okarmi@thenational.ae