ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — An Afghan NATO interpreter in a stolen SUV carrying a lighter and a tank of gas on Wednesday tried to run down a group including the newly-installed commander of Regional Command-Southwest as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane taxied toward the gathering, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Friday.
Had the speeding vehicle arrived at the scene a few minutes later, Panetta could have been present on the tarmac at Camp Bastion Airfield in Helmand province.
New details paint the incident — coming at a time of heightened concern over increased violence directed at NATO and U.S. forces by Afghan personnel — as far more serious than U.S. officials originally let on.
Panetta’s plane rolled to another airport ramp after the welcoming party, including Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, who took over in RC-Southwest this week, and his deputy, British Gen. Stuart Skeates, was forced to scatter to avoid the SUV barreling toward them.
The man crashed into a ditch and appeared to set himself on fire with gas in the vehicle. He emerged ablaze, and was captured and the fire extinguished by security personnel. He died early Thursday before investigators could question him.
The man’s brother and father, also interpreters, and another person were taken into custody after the attack, a senior defense official said.
Military officials in Afghanistan say that despite the close timing of the incident and Panetta’s arrival, there is no evidence the attack was aimed at the defense secretary.
“It remains ISAF’s view that it is unlikely that the individual knew the secretary was on the plane,” the senior defense official said.
The incident took place out of the view of the plane’s passengers, including members of the press who remained in the dark about the attack for nearly 10 hours. Panetta himself was not fully briefed on the incident for several hours, the senior defense official said.
While speaking to the media approximately an hour after the attack, Gurganus did not mention the incident, but said violence is not a problem between Afghan and foreign military personnel in RC-Southwest.
“You can’t get a whole lot safer than right here when you’re surrounded by everybody else on the base,” he said.
Panetta’s two-day visit was designed to shore up the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which is based on a steady transfer of security responsibility throughout the country to Afghan forces, followed by a drawdown of U.S. forces by the end of 2014.
Recent incidents including the inadvertent burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and retaliatory killings of U.S. servicemembers by Afghan forces— including a Marine in southwestern Afghanistan whose Feb. 1 death was not initially reported by the International Security Assistance Force as Afghan-on-coalition violence — have strained inter-military relations. And just days before the visit, a U.S. soldier was arrested in connection with the murder of 16 civilians in nearby Kandahar province.
The Afghan leg of Panetta’s trip ended Thursday on a sour note, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for foreign troops — whom he said Afghans no longer trust in the wake of the killings early this week — to be pulled out of Afghan villages. Village operations are an important part of the U.S. war strategy. In another blow the same day, the Taliban withdrew from peace negotiations with the United States.
But despite the recent headlines, U.S. officials say a bedrock of partnership remains between U.S. and Afghan forces, and pointed to significantly decreased levels of insurgent-initiated violence across the country, relative to this time last year.
“The strategy is working,” Little said Thursday.