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The situation remains tense in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, an Afghan civilian who worked for coalition forces as an interpreter crashed a stolen truck through protective barriers and drove at high speed onto a military airfield just minutes before US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was to land. The airfield was located at Camp Bastion, a British military base that adjoins the American base Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province. Although the attack did not injure anyone but the perpetrator, the incident was the most serious breach of security involving an American official of the war and highlighted the extraordinary strain between the government and military of President Hamid Karzai and their US and NATO partners.
In remarks delivered later during his trip, Panetta made it clear that such incidents — including the recent massacre of civilians — would not alter President Obama’s planned withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of next year when the Afghan army and police are handed responsibility for security in the war-torn country. In Washington, President Obama, who said after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday that “real progress” was being made in Afghanistan, pledged to stick to the withdrawal timetable he set last year despite recent incidents involving the accidental burning of some Korans and the massacre of 16 civilians by a US soldier, which have enraged the Afghan people and government. Obama and Cameron mapped out a strategy for the next year while putting on a show of “rock solid” unity.
Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll revealed that 50% of Americans want to speed up the withdrawal timetable while only 24% believe we should stick with Obama’s plan. Just 21% think we should stay in Afghanistan until the mission is accomplished.
Such pessimism was not likely alleviated by the airport incident Wednesday. The Afghan civilian lost control of the truck — stolen earlier from a NATO soldier who was injured when he was pulled from the vehicle — and ended up in a ditch near the ramp where the secretary was to deplane. He emerged from the crash on fire, fleeing the scene in another truck before he was apprehended. He is reported to have suffered serious burns over 70% of his body.
It is thought that the interpreter did not know that Secretary Panetta was on the plane. Panetta’s visit was unannounced, but there is evidence that at least some Afghanistan military personnel knew the Secretary was coming before he landed. All 20 Afghan soldiers who were requested to come to the meeting with Panetta were asked to come unarmed.
Marine Major General Charles “Mark” Gurganus, the new NATO International Security and Assistance Force commander for the area that covers Helmand Province, then ordered the American and other coalition soldiers to stack arms as well, ostensibly to avoid the impression that we can’t trust our Afghan allies.
Panetta told the assembled coalition forces at Camp Leatherneck, “We’ll be challenged by our enemy. We’ll be challenged by ourselves. We’ll be challenged by the hell of war itself. But none of that, none of that, must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve.” The secretary, commenting on the massacre and Koran burnings said, “We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve to that mission and to sticking to the strategy that we’ve put in place.”
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