WASHINGTON — Bad behavior by U.S. troops in Afghanistan has hampered America’s war effort over the past year, triggering a broad new campaign by defense leaders to improve discipline in the ranks.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his first personal appeal to troops on the issue, was expected Friday to remind U.S. forces that they are representing the American people and they must behave up to military standards while speaking at Fort Benning.
The service leaders have zeroed in on discipline in meetings with mid-level commanders around the country. They say they recognize that part of the problem may be leadership stumbles by the young officers who have shouldered much of the burden of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Maybe we’ve gotten overconfident, and maybe we’ve gotten a little bit comfortable in our young leaders,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “Realizing that they are young, they don’t have a lot of experiences. We have to continue to assist them so they understand what is expected of them.”
Marine Corps Commandant James Amos was blunter.
“We are allowing our standards to erode,” he wrote his commanders. “A number of recent widely publicized incidents have brought discredit on the Marine Corps and reverberated at the strategic level. The undisciplined conduct represented in these incidents threatens to overshadow all our good work and sacrifice.”
Senior leaders have warned for several years about a deterioration of discipline that may have contributed to increased substance abuse, suicides, domestic abuse and other problems.
In February, troops mistakenly burned copies of the Quran, which led to violent protests and revenge killings of six Americans. In March, a U.S. soldier left his base and allegedly killed 17 civilians, mainly women and children. Last month, newly revealed photographs showed U.S. soldiers posing in 2010 with Afghan police holding the severed legs of a suicide bomber.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has expressed concern about the impact that those incidents have had on the war, according to a senior defense official. Allen believes that a number of major setbacks in the past six months have resulted from moral, not operational, failures, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.
Insurgents have used the incidents to incite violence and undermine U.S. efforts to win over the Afghan people, considered critical to counterterrorism operations.