Panetta arrives at crime scene after Manas talks

Panetta arrives at crime scene after Manas talks

Panetta arrives at crime scene after Manas talks

An Afghan girl walks with an Islamic flag on the outskirts of Herat. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (inset R) shakes hands with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Taalaybek Omuraliev during their meeting in Bishkek, where he held talks on Manas airbase. AFP photos

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit yesterday, as the United States tried to contain Afghan rage from the killings of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier. Before departing for Afghanistan, Panetta held talks in Kyrgyzstan to stress the importance of air base which is crucial for NATO-led force in Afghanistan. 

Panetta called the killing of 16 Afghans and the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base “deeply troubling” incidents that had challenged the war effort in Afghanistan. “Each of these incidents is deeply troubling … We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve. We will be tested, we will be challenged by the enemy, by ourselves and by the hell of war itself,” the Pentagon chief said. Last month, over 30 people were killed in protests sparked by the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base.
While Panetta was visiting troops in the Camp Bastion military camp in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, a roadside bomb attack killed eight civilians. He met Helmand provincial governor and other officers from the Afghan security forces, and was also scheduled to meet President Hamid Karzai. 

Tensions were running high a day after suspected Taliban insurgents opened fire on an Afghan government delegation attending a memorial service for the murdered civilians. The hail of gunfire left one member of the Afghan security forces dead and one policeman wounded. Yesterday, shortly after Panetta flew in, at least one Afghan security officer was also killed in a motorcycle bomb blast in Kandahar city.

‘Why was soldier sent back to duty?’

Meanwhile, a U.S. congressman asked the Pentagon on March 13 to explain why the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers was sent back into combat after having earlier suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, as lawmakers questioned how seriously the military deals with the mental health of troops.

The Army staff sergeant accused in March 11’s shooting served on three deployments to Iraq before he was sent to Afghanistan last year. The soldier, whose name has not been disclosed publicly, was treated for a traumatic brain injury suffered in a vehicle rollover in 2010 in Iraq, according to a U.S. official. Representative Bill Pascrell, founder of a U.S. congressional task force on brain injuries, wrote to Panetta requesting details of the accused soldier’s injury, diagnosis, and when and how he was returned to combat duty.

Manas negotiations

Before the unannounced visit, Panetta had been in Kyrgyzstan to flag the importance of an air base that the Kyrgyz president wants the U.S. military to vacate when its lease expires in mid-2014. The Manas air base at Bishkek airport serves as a crucial hub for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan and U.S. officials are concerned about the future of Manas as they review plans for troop deployments beyond mid-2014.

However, Kyrgyzstan reiterated its stance and warned Panetta that American forces would not be able to use the strategic air base for military missions after the current lease expires. At the start of a meeting with the Pentagon chief, the Secretary of Kyrgyzstan’s Defense Council Busurmankul Tabaldiev told reporters that after 2014 “there should be no military mission” at the Manas base. He said the airport was a civilian, commercial enterprise and added that Kyrgyzstan had “shown readiness” to support the non-military use of the transit center beyond July 2014, when the current rental deal runs out.

Panetta, in his first official visit to the capital Bishkek for talks as Pentagon chief, expressed appreciation for access to the base. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were no negotiations to keep Manas beyond 2014. Still, the official suggested that the Pentagon was not taking President Almazbek Atambayev position on Manas as the final word on the matter, saying there may be some “wiggle room.” 

Compiled from AFP, AP and Reuters stories by the Daily News staff.