Panetta arrives to tame tensions, but a terrorist attack breaks out instead.
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."
The staff sergeant accused in the massacre has been flown out of the country and is now in a detention center in Kuwait. Many Afghans, including some members of parliament, have called on the US to hand the alleged assassin over to the Afghan government for trial and execution, but it appears that even President Karzai realizes that won't happen. Instead, Karzai has said that trial in America would be acceptable, provided the process was transparent and open to media.
As tensions have risen as a result of the massacre, NATO has adopted new measures to reduce the risk of attacks by Afghan soldiers on coalition troops. The Pentagon released data that record 45 such attacks since 2007, the vast majority taking place in the last two years. The aftermath of the Koran burnings when six Americans were murdered by Afghan soldiers, has led to the alliance formulating new rules that are designed to lessen the chance that such attacks will occur again.
Among the measures to be implemented: embedding counterintelligence officers in training schools for Afghan soldiers in order to spot recruits who are behaving suspiciously; increasing the number of Afghan intelligence officers; and making sure the troops are paid regularly and are granted regular leave.
Speaking for NATO, Oana Lungescu said, "The plan will strengthen security measures, revise and improve the vetting, screening and monitoring of Afghan forces and crucially improve cultural awareness on both sides ... to bridge the gap that can tragically lead to violence." Such measures would not have prevented the incident at the airport, nor is it likely that the plan would deter an Afghan soldier who might feel they were acting to protect Islam, as some of the murderers of American troops evidently believed. Instead, the measures are designed to prevent Taliban infiltration of the Afghan army and police -- a problem that has arisen several times in recent years.
The violence on both sides was a topic of conversation between President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, who met in Washington on Wednesday to plan strategy over the next year when American forces will be reduced by 23,000 to about 68,000 and the British will also reduce their commitment. The two countries, who have the most troops in Afghanistan, have vowed to stick to the withdrawal schedule set by President Obama last year.
But the two leaders announced in a joint press conference that they would speed up handing security responsibilities over to the Afghan army and police next year in advance of the total withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. This would mean that by mid-2013, NATO forces would be confined to mostly a support role.
President Obama promised that this does not mean that NATO would abandon Afghanistan. "We are going to complete this mission and we are going to do it responsibly. And NATO will maintain an enduring commitment, so that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for al-Qaida to attack our countries." Prime Minister Cameron added, "We can help ensure that Afghanistan is capable of delivering its own security without the need for large numbers of foreign troops." Referring to the Gallup poll and other similar surveys, the president acknowledged the war weariness but said, "the vast majority" of Americans and Britons "understand why we went there."
Both leaders also reiterated their support for a political solution in Afghanistan, which means continued negotiations with the Taliban. The goal, said Obama, is not to create a "perfect Afghanistan," but rather to nurture a climate where the Afghans can stand on their own.
It is clear that the president is determined to stick to his withdrawal plan -- not lengthening it or shortening it -- despite recent incidents that have called into question American involvement in nation building in Afghanistan. The apparent attack at the airport on Wednesday, as well as the massacre of Afghan civilians, will not affect the current parameters of the mission. What kind of country America and its NATO allies leave in 2014, however, is still open to question.
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