Afghan Soldiers Told to Come Unarmed to Panetta Meeting

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Photographer: Scott Olson/AFP/Getty Images

When Afghan troops gathered today for a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan, they were told to leave their weapons behind.

A commander ordered all the soldiers with weapons to go and stack them outside the canvas-covered hangar before Panetta arrived to speak to about 200 troops from 11 countries and their Afghan partners. About 20 Afghans at the meeting didn’t have to because Panetta’s security detail had requested that they come unarmed in the first place, said Marine Master Sergeant Brenda Varnadore, a military spokeswoman.

Marine Major General Charles “Mark” Gurganus, the new NATO International Security and Assistance Force commander for the area that covers Helmand Province, said he ordered the American and other coalition soldiers to turn in their weapons to avoid signaling that their Afghan allies can’t be trusted.

“Somebody had said we were going to have the Afghans leave their weapons outside,” said Gurganus. “I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners.”

The gesture couldn’t mask the tension between the Obama administration’s claims of progress training Afghan forces to take over the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and persistent doubts about the loyalty and competence of the Afghan army and police.

Those doubts have grown since Afghan troops killed six Americans in so-called green-on-blue attacks in the two weeks after U.S. troops burned copies of the Koran in a garbage pit on February 22. Data released by the Pentagon indicate that there have been more than 45 such attacks on coalition forces since 2007, 75 percent of them in the last two years.

Aftermath of Mass Killing

Panetta flew into southern Afghanistan today as the U.S. military eyes reactions there and at home to a weekend shooting rampage by an American soldier.

The killing of at least 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, has cast a shadow on U.S. claims of progress in the war and on plans for a gradual reduction of coalition forces through 2014. Panetta landed in neighboring Helmand Province to visit troops of the 50-nation NATO force and meet Afghan leaders.

“It is important that all of us -- the United States, Afghanistan, the ISAF forces -- all stick to the strategy that we’ve laid out,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him. All those involved need to “bring this war to a responsible end and achieve the mission that all of us are embarked on.”

Addressing the troops at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta urged them not to forget the driving motivation for the fight -- the al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Never Again

“The reason you’re here is to make damn sure that never happens again,” he told one soldier who asked how he should explain his deployment to his wife and three children. “Is there still a threat? You bet there’s still a threat.”

At Forward Operating Base Shukvani, his next stop, Panetta thanked 100 troops from the Republic of Georgia for their role. The Georgian battalion deployed in November and already has lost five members, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel who in December lost both his legs to a pressure-plate roadside bomb. He’s being treated at a U.S. military medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, where President Barack Obama recently visited him.

The U.S. and its partners in the coalition, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, confront a decision this year on how many more troops to withdraw and at what pace. The weekend violence was the latest in a series of confrontations between Americans and Afghans that may further erode trust between the two sides.

Administration Decisions

The effect of the incidents on the Obama administration’s decision-making may depend in part on the reaction to the village killings. Hundreds of Afghan university students called in a street protest yesterday in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad for the U.S. soldier to be tried in their country’s courts and to be given the death penalty.

Obama said yesterday he had told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he takes the matter “as seriously as if it were our own citizens and our own children” who were killed. Anyone involved must be held “fully accountable with the full force of the law,” Obama said at the White House.

The U.S. retains legal jurisdiction for prosecutions of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan under a U.S.-Afghan accord, according to a Jan. 5, 2011, report by the Congressional Research Service.

The staff sergeant suspected in the killings -- whose name is being withheld by the military in advance of charges -- could face the death penalty under the U.S. military justice system, Panetta told reporters accompanying him.

Withdrawal Plans

“My understanding is, in these instances, that could be a consideration,” he said.

Panetta will be in Afghanistan for two days, during which he will also meet Karzai.

Obama has ordered the first 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of September, leaving 68,000 behind, and other nations are exiting as well.

In the U.S., Republican presidential candidates including Newt Gingrich have called for U.S. forces to come home, and public opinion polls show waning support for the war effort.

Obama also is discussing the issue with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron during a White House visit as they prepare for a May NATO summit meeting in Chicago.

“The White House is not currently reviewing options for further troop withdrawals and no decisions have been made,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, said in an e-mail yesterday. “The president will make decisions on further drawdowns at the appropriate time based on our interests and in consultation with our allies and Afghan partners.”

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