BASTION AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane was forced to divert to another runway by a bizarre security incident that unfolded as he descended into Afghanistan for an unannounced visit Wednesday.
Pentagon officials said that an Afghan civilian carjacked a pickup from an ISAF servicemember, injuring him, and burst onto a runway near where Panetta was to deplane. He then crashed the truck into a ditch at high speed. The man later died of his injuries.
“Security personnel responded, and for reasons that are totally unknown to us at this time, our personnel discovered that he was ablaze,” but the truck was not on fire, Pentagon press secretary George Little said.
Security guards chased the burning man across the tarmac and extinguished the blaze when he leapt onto an airport truck, Little said.
No details are yet available about the man’s identity or motive, he added. It’s also unclear how he gained access to the runway. No explosives were found with the man or his vehicle. The injured coalition servicemember is not an American.
There’s was no evidence that the Afghan’s wild ride was an attempt on Panetta’s life.
“At no time was the secretary or the secretary’s delegation in any danger whatsoever,” he said, adding, “We have absolutely no indication that this is anything more than a stolen vehicle incident.”
Panetta arrived in Afghanistan with plans to forcefully argue for the Americans war strategy in Afghanistan at a time of rising uncertainty. But soon after the vehicle incident, another awkward moment arose when U.S. Marines waiting for a town hall meeting with Panetta at nearby Camp Leatherneck were ordered to stack their guns under guard outside.
The order was not spurred by any security concerns, officials said, and Panetta met later in the day with both U.S. and coalition troops carrying weapons. Instead, the order seemingly arose from U.S. officials’ desire to put a positive face on the crux of the U.S. war strategy — deepening battlefield partnership between allied U.S. and Afghan troops.
Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, who took over as commander of Regional Command Southwest in recent days, told reporters he simply didn’t want it to appear that Afghan troops at the town hall meeting, who don’t bring weapons to such events, were being singled out as security risks. He had earlier directed that Marines not bring their guns, but the order didn’t reach them in time.
“I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners,” Gurganus said, adding that U.S. and Afghan forces in the region have continued to work well together in Regional Command-Southwest, while one crisis after another has rocked the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.
Panetta praised the assembled troops, who also represented countries including the United Kingdom and Bahrain, for making RC-Southwest an increasingly peaceful place. As of Feb. 12, insurgent attacks this year were down 31 percent compared with the same period last year, he said. Throughout the country, attacks are down 24 percent.
“This was a Taliban stronghold, and because of your work, because of your dedication and the tremendous sacrifice that you’re making, the reality is we are achieving greater stability and greater security,” he said.
The Taliban remain a force in the area, however. On the same day Panetta visited Helmand province, an improvised explosive device reportedly killed eight Afghan civilians there. Another powerful roadside bomb killed several British troops last week.
Later in the day, Panetta visited a Georgian combat outpost to thank the 200 troops stationed there for their sacrifices, which include the loss of several soldiers in recent fighting.
From there, he traveled to Kabul, where he was to meet with President Hamid Karzai as well as Afghanistan’s ministers of the interior and of defense, U.S. officials said.
Panetta was expected to focus on shoring up the primary U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, which centers on small groups of U.S. military advisers embedding within Afghan units to prepare them to assume leadership of security responsibilities in 2013, with a U.S. military exit to follow in December 2014.
U.S. and Afghan leaders are hashing out a range of issues, from a Status of Forces Agreement allowing U.S. troops to operate in the country to the touchy issue of U.S. night raids, which are deeply unpopular in Afghanistan but a central tactic of coalition counterterrorist operations.
The recent setbacks, however, have raised questions not only about whether the partnership will work on the ground, but whether political will exists in the United States to carry the war through to its scheduled end.
Recent polls show falling popular support for the war, and Republican presidential candidates have begun calling for a drastic revision of war strategy, or even an accelerated pullout, with Newt Gingrich saying the present strategy was “risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable.”
At the outset of his current trip, Panetta repeatedly tried to hammer home the imperative of a stable Afghanistan for U.S. security.
“The fundamental mission there is to ensure that not only do we defeat al-Qaida and their militant allies, but that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to conduct attacks on this country,” he said. “To do that we’ve got to have an Afghanistan that can control and secure itself [and] govern itself in the future.”
Panetta said recent setbacks are isolated incidents in a successful campaign, and haven’t derailed cooperation between the two countries.
The U.S. must take the time to finish the war the right way and prevent al-Qaida from surging back to power, President Barack Obama said Monday.
“It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” Obama said in a radio interview this week. “But what we don’t want to do, is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits.”