U.S. defence Secretary Leon Panetta urgently flew to Afghanistan to argue for the U.S. war strategy at a time of rising uncertainty, reports the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Following Sunday’s massacre of Afghan civilians by an American soldier in Kandahar province — plus the Koran burnings last month — relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan have become strained with fresh calls for Americans to withdraw.
The Washington Post reports that Members of Afghanistan’s Senate refused to carry on with business as usual inside parliament and instead stood in silent protest of the killings.
Panetta’s two-day trip has had a few awkward moments.
At a town hall meeting at Camp Leatherneck, 200 people including Marines gathered to hear Panetta speak. An uncomfortable moment arose when the Marines were asked to get up and leave the tent to store their M-16s, M-4 automatic rifles and 9-mm pistols outside. And then return empty handed.
“Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust,” said Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall to reporters, according to the New York Times.
The order had come from U.S. officials’ wish to make a positive impression on Afghan partners attending the town hall discussion. Afghans culturally don’t bring weapons to meetings.
“I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners,” Maj. Gen. Gurganus, the top commander in Helmand province, said. Unfortunately, the order didn’t reach the Marines in time.
Panetta’s trip so far has seen him repeatedly hammer home the imperative of a stable Afghanistan for U.S. security, wrote Chris Carroll of the Stars and Stripes. The defence Secretary’s initial landing at Camp Bastion, the British air field adjoining Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, sparked a question of security itself.
Panetta’s plane was greeted by a stolen pick-up truck driven by a man on fire who then crashed the vehicle in a ditch.
Base personnel chased the burning man across the tarmac and extinguished the blaze and treated him for burn injuries after he jumped onto an airport truck. Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters that there are no details about who the driver is and what the motive for his joy ride was. They do know that the driver carjacked the truck from an ISAF servicemember.
The bizarre safety breach is not being considered by the Pentagon as an attack on the defence Secretary, but does highlight the primitive state of security in Afghanistan.
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