While there were differing accounts about the killings Sunday night, The Washington Post said the victims had been attending a party in the Kajaki area of Helmand in southern Afghanistan, noting the Taliban prohibits parties where there is music and mixed-gender dancing.
Provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said all of the victims were beheaded, but it was not clear whether they had been shot first, the Post reported.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, condemning the "mass killing," blamed the Taliban, the Post said.
The New York Times reported Gov. Hajji Naimatullah Khan in Musa Qala district had first said the Taliban had executed the 17 for attending a party but later told the Times in a subsequent telephone interview witnesses believed the male victims, identified as informers, were dragged away from villages and the two women, who had pleaded for the men's lives, also were killed.
"The Taliban learned that these are the people who had links with government," Hajji Khan said of the victims. "They were detained in their homes and taken away."
The report said both Musa Qala and nearby Kajaki, where the bodies were reported found, have seen much fighting between the Taliban and NATO troops in the past and the areas remain Taliban strongholds.
Spokesmen for the Taliban either remained silent about the killings or denied knowledge, the report said.
The Times reported the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the 17 victims had been shot and beheaded in a "shameful act."
The Wall Street Journal, also reporting there were conflicting accounts of the killings, quoted Helmand police chief Farid Ahmadi Farhang as saying all the victims were civilians.
"A couple of days before some very important Taliban commanders were killed in [a coalition] airstrike, making the Taliban very angry. The Taliban killed those people they accused of spying on their slain commanders," he said.
The Journal quoted a Taliban spokesman for southern Afghanistan as saying he wasn't aware of the incident in Kajaki.
Britain's The Guardian newspaper reported one of the various reasons for the killings given by officials was that it resulted after two Taliban commanders quarreled over women. Separately, the report quoted the police commander's office as saying it had been told the 17 victims were targeted as government spies.