Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Are U.S. troops losing a war of perception even though they’re dominating on the battlefield?

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta travels Friday to visit soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., he’ll personally remind them of the harm that lapses in judgment and unwisely publicized photos and videos can inflict on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

“We live in a world where these kinds of isolated incidents can become a headline in 15 seconds,” Panetta said in an interview with Stars and Stripes on Monday. “And that can do tremendous damage.”

That the defense secretary is delivering the kind of message that might normally be expected from a sergeant major or platoon leader is a testament to the kind of damage the Pentagon believes has been done by recent public missteps in Afghanistan.

U.S. war strategy there — not to mention plans to withdraw combat troops from the country by the end of 2014 — is based on close collaboration between U.S. and Afghan troops, as well as U.S.-backed efforts to shield rural populations from Taliban influence. The partnership has been put in peril recently not only by regular killings of U.S. troops by Afghan soldiers, but by the bad conduct of U.S. troops.

The most recent public relations setback resulted from publication of photos taken in 2010 that depicted grinning U.S. soldiers posing with body parts of failed Afghan suicide bombers. Earlier scandals involved video of Marines urinating on dead insurgents and a photo of Marine snipers posing with a Nazi symbol on a flag, as well as videos showing troops beating a sheep with a bat and throwing a puppy off a cliff. Older videos made in Iraq featured troops mocking children and insulting Islam.

The service chiefs have stressed the need for “character, discipline and integrity,” Panetta said, but stamping out such behavior will require rank-and-file leaders as well, Panetta said Monday.

“It’s going to demand a lot more of the enlisted sergeants, [and] the people who are officers at the unit level,” he said. “They’ve got a much bigger responsibility to make sure that their units stay cohesive and well behaved and exercise the greatest integrity.”

The problems, he said, are caused by only a few “bad apples” making unwise decisions, while the majority of troops carry out their missions on the battlefield and elsewhere conscientiously.

“My view is the vast majority of men and women in uniform are people of high character who really are trying to abide by the highest standards and trying to do the job that they’re told to do,” Panetta said.

Bin Laden raid

A year after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Panetta, who oversaw it as CIA director, reflected on the meaning of the achievement.

“Obviously, I’m very proud of that operation, but I guess what I’m really proud of is the relationship in the intelligence area between our intelligence professionals and the military,” he said. “I think that’s one of the strongest partnerships going in terms of confronting terrorism. It’s been very effective. It continues to be very effective.”

The organization bin Laden founded has been defanged to some extent, Panetta said, but the United States shouldn’t drop its guard.

“It obviously did significant damage to al-Qaida as far as their spiritual leader having been eliminated,” he said. “But I think we realize that it remains a threat and a threat that we continue to be vigilant about.”

carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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