CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Wednesday told Afghan officials that recent violence — such as the incident last weekend in which a U.S. soldier allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree — will not deter the United States from carrying out its mission in Afghanistan.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Mr. Panetta told provincial leaders that “those events do not represent the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces, or U.S. and (coalition) forces — the vast majority of whom are trying to do the right thing.”
Mr. Panetta‘s visit to Afghanistan was planned months ago, long before the weekend slaughter that claimed the lives of 16 villagers, including women and children. But the trip propels Mr. Panetta into the center of escalating anti-American anger and sets the stage for some difficult discussions with Afghan leaders.
Mr. Panetta and other U.S. officials say the shooting spree should not derail the U.S. and NATO strategy of a gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. But it has further soured relations with war-weary Afghans, jeopardizing the U.S. strategy of working closely with Afghan forces so they can take over their country’s security.
There were clear concerns about security in the large tent at Camp Leatherneck, where Mr. Panetta was slated to talk to troops.
Before Mr. Panetta came into the hall, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall told the more than 200 Marines in the room to take their weapons outside and leave them there. Afghan troops already had been told not to bring their guns in.
“Something has come to light,” Sgt. Maj. Hall told the troops. It was a highly unusual order, and some in the audience said they had never seen that happen before.
Asked about the order, Sgt. Maj. Hall said all he knew was that “I was told to get the weapons out.”
A U.S. defense official said the request was not a reaction to an immediate threat. Speaking on condition of anonymity to describe security procedures, the official said the base commander made the decision that no one would be allowed to bring in weapons.
The official said the decision was made out of respect for troops from other countries, such as the Afghans, who are never allowed to bring guns into an event. It was not a request from Mr. Panetta or his security team, the official said.
Mr. Panetta met with several Afghan provincial leaders and told them the primary mission is to prepare for the transition to Afghan security control.
He acknowledged there will continue to be challenges from the enemy as well as issues between U.S. and Afghan allies, but said everyone must remain committed.
The military has detained an Army staff sergeant in connection with Sunday’s massacre. An Afghan official said Tuesday that surveillance video showed the sergeant walking up to his base and raising his arms in surrender.
The official, who spoke anonymously to discuss a private briefing, said U.S. authorities showed Afghan authorities the surveillance video to prove that only one perpetrator was involved in the Sunday shootings.
A delegation investigating the shootings was meeting in the southern city of Kandahar on Wednesday when a bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded about 600 yards away. The blast killed one Afghan intelligence official and wounded three other people, but the delegation members were unharmed.
Even before the shootings, anti-Americanism already was roiling in Afghanistan over U.S. troops burning Muslim holy books, including Korans, last month on an American base. The burnings came to light soon after a video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses was posted on the Internet in January.
Military commanders have yet to release their final investigation on the Koran burnings, which U.S. officials say was a mistake. Five U.S. service members could face disciplinary action in connection with the incident.
Mr. Panetta‘s two-day visit is scheduled to include meetings with President Hamid Karzai, Afghan defense officials and provincial leaders, as well as routine discussions with his commanders on the ground. The sessions are likely to touch on America’s planned withdrawal of about 22,000 troops by fall, including as many as 10,000 Marines from Helmand Province.
• Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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