US confronts ‘troubling’ Afghan events
KABUL US DEFENCE chief Leon Panetta on Wednesday admitted “deeply troubling” events in the “hell of war” during a visit to Afghanistan as he tried to contain the fallout from a massacre by an American soldier who gunned down 16 civilians.
But Panetta vowed that the burning of Korans at a US base, Sunday’s shooting rampage by a US soldier and Afghan soldiers killing coalition troops would not derail NATO’s mission to defeat Al Qaeda and reverse a Taliban insurgency.
The Pentagon chief flew to Kabul following talks in southern Afghanistan as he sought to calm tensions just days after 16 villagers — most of them women and children — were shot dead by a US soldier in Kandahar in the worst single such incident since the 2001 US-led invasion.
Panetta’s spokesman described a meeting with provincial leaders in Helmand as “excellent” but his talks were overshadowed by a bomb attack in the province that killed eight civilians, a stark reminder of a resilient insurgency.
While German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere also arrived in Kabul on Wednesday and met with Karzai and his Afghan counterpart, two explosions in the south of the country killed nine people, officials said.
In a sign that nerves are on edge, US Marines waiting to hear Panetta speak inside a hall were asked to leave their rifles outside — an unusual move.
American troops typically have their rifles in hand when the US defence secretary addresses them.
A Pentagon official told reporters there was no heightened security threat but the US troops had been ordered to leave their weapons at the door to be “consistent”, as the Afghans in the hall were unarmed.
“I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners,” said Major General Mark Gurganus, the new commander of US forces in Helmand province, who issued the order.
“I mean, you got one of the most important people in the world there,” Gurganus told reporters.
Coalition officers are increasingly concerned over friction and distrust between Afghan and NATOled troops amid a trend of “insider killings” with Afghans turning their weapons on their trainers.
Nearly one in five NATO soldiers killed this year has died at the hands of their supposed allies — six of them Americans who were killed by Afghan colleagues after the Koran burning.
Addressing US, NATO and Afghan troops at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta conceded that the burning of Korans on a US base last month, Sunday’s killings and attacks on coalition troops by Afghan soldiers were cause of concern.
“These last few weeks have been a challenging time ..
Each of these incidents is deeply troubling,” he said.
“We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve.
Panetta told the troops to remain steadfast and not to lose sight of the goal of preventing Al-Qaeda and its allies from finding sanctuary in Afghanistan. “We will be tested, we will be challenged by the enemy, by ourselves and by the hell of war itself.” But he added that “thanks to your efforts, our strategy is working”.
During talks with Helmand provincial leaders, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the defence chief told them that “the United States remains focused on the mission, and that recent events will not deter us from carrying it out”.
Panetta’s third visit to Afghanistan as defence secretary coincides with a growing debate in Washington about the course of the 10- year war, with some sceptics arguing for an accelerated drawdown of troops.
Under current plans, the United States aims to reduce its force of nearly 90,000 to about 68,000 by the end of September, with combat troops due to be pulled out by the end of 2014.
US officials have left the door open to a smaller force after 2014 but the recent setbacks have complicated negotiations with the Afghan government for a long-term security agreement.
One major sticking point is President Hamid Karzai government’s refusal so far to grant legal immunity to American troops — the same issue that scuppered a US strategic pact with Iraq.
Suspected Taliban insurgents, who have vowed revenge for the US soldier’s rampage, opened fire Tuesday on an Afghan government delegation at a memorial service for the murdered villagers, killing an Afghan soldier and wounding a policeman.
The eight civilians who died on Wednesday were killed when a minibus ran over a roadside bomb in Marja district — the focus of a major US-led military offensive designed to clear out the Taliban in early 2010.
Sunday’s shooting spree marked the latest in a string of damaging incidents that have raised questions about the NATO war effort, including the burning of Korans that triggered unrest in which some 40 people were killed.