Can the military police itself?

David Goldman/AP

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has apologized for grisly new photos showing American soldiers posing with the body parts of Taliban suicide bombers and promised that “anyone found responsible for this inhuman conduct will be held accountable.” If similar recent events are any indication, those punishments will be a long time coming.

The U.S.-led command in Afghanistan has been rocked by a series of missteps in recent months, from the January release of videos showing Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters to the February report that Korans had been burned at a sprawling American base in eastern Afghanistan. To date, however, no officers or enlisted personnel have been disciplined for their roles in the gaffes.

The worst such incident occurred last month when Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales walked off his base in a small town in southern Afghanistan and killed at least 17 civilians. Bales’s attorneys say his actions may have been motivated by an earlier brain injury but don’t dispute his culpability in the crimes. No one from Bales’s unit—including the commander of his small combat outpost in Kandahar—has yet been relieved or otherwise punished, according to Army officials.

Spokesmen for the Marines and Army point out that officers and enlisted personnel could face punishments up to and including courts martial depending on the results of the various probes into the incidents. 

The investigations into the Marine video have been completed, and a senior Marine general in Quantico is currently weighing if any troops should be disciplined, and how harshly. Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the Marines, said there was no timetable for a final determination.

The two services’ refusal to more quickly take action contrasts sharply with the Navy, which has relieved dozens of senior officers of command over the past 16 months for far smaller offenses. Last summer, for example, Navy Capt. Eric Merrill was relieved of command after his ship hit a buoy in the waters off Bahrain. At least 28 Navy officers have lost their posts since January 2011, many while the investigations into their behavior were still under way.

The U.S.-led military command in Kabul has also fired some officers for comparatively minor missteps. Last fall, Army Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller was removed from his post after he criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai and told Politico that the Karzai administration was “isolated from reality.” 

Fuller lost his post almost immediately, with Gen. John Allen, the top Afghan war commander, slamming him on the way out the door for making “inappropriate public comments.”

Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Kabul, said the investigation into the pictures published on Wednesday by the Los Angeles Times was just getting under way and that “it would be premature to get ahead of that process.” The probes into the Kandahar shootings and Koran burnings are also ongoing, military officials said, though the Koran probe should be completed soon.

Speaking via e-mail, Kirby also emphasized said that such gaffes have been carried by only a tiny fraction of the U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan.  Those troops, Kirby said via e-mail, are notable for “the respect they show daily for Islam and for the Afghan people, the courage under the fire they take almost every day, and the humility with which they do it.”

Still, Kirby declined to answer questions about why no soldiers or Marines had yet been disciplined for the Kandahar shootings, Taliban urination videos, or Koran burnings, referring those queries to the individual military services. 

Spokesmen for the Army and Marines said no discplinary measures would be taken until the internal probes had been completed. The Navy, for its part, routinely removes officers from command while such investigations are ongoing; in March, Cmdr. Jon Haydel was relieved for “personal misconduct” even though the probe into his behavior hadn’t been completed.

Army spokesman George Wright referred a question about the status of troops involved in the Koran burning back to NATO, which had specifically refused to talk about it. Wright confirmed that no one besides Bales has to date faced any disciplinary proceedings in connection to the Kandahar shootings. In the Pentagon, many officers believe that Bales’s commanders bear some responsibility for failing to put measures in place which would have prevented him from leaving the base and carrying out his rampage.

Gibson, the Marine spokesman, said there had been a pair of investigations into the Taliban videos, one by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and one within the Marine Corps itself. Gibson said Lt. Gen. Richard Mills was reviewing the results and weighing whether to order further investigation, courts martial, or lesser forms of reprimands. There is also the chance, Gibson said, that Mills will opt for no punishment whatsoever.

Either way, it could be weeks or months longer before an answer comes. “The commanding general is considering his possible courses of actions,” Gibson said, “but no final decision has been made.”

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