ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT EN ROUTE TO THE TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, KYRGYZSTAN — A steady drumbeat of scandals and atrocities that have shaken the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to its core in recent weeks is an indication of the brutal nature of war, not evidence the U.S. campaign in the country is unraveling, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta argued Monday.
“War is hell,” he told reporters Monday en route to Kyrgyzstan, a crucial regional transit hub for troops and materiel headed to Afghanistan. “These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place — they’ve taken place in any war … This is not the first of those events and it probably won’t be the last.”
An Army staff sergeant remains in custody for the alleged murder early Sunday of 16 Afghans, mainly children — a crime for which Panetta said the death penalty “could be a consideration.”
The incident followed a wave of violence sparked by the burning of Qurans by American troops at a U.S. detention center last month, and a video of Marines urinating on dead Afghan insurgents that sparked outrage around the country.
Panetta confirmed the soldier in custody is on his fourth combat deployment, but he said the incident is not a sign that the stresses of 10 years of war are pushing U.S. troops to a breaking point.
“I think when you look at that larger picture, it does make clear that these kinds of events are isolated and don’t represent what’s really happening in Afghanistan,” he said.
The true test is whether partnership between U.S. and Afghan troops is ongoing throughout the country, he said.
“We’re not getting large-scale desertions; we’re not getting any kind of disruptions,” he said. Afghan security forces “recognize what they have to do and they’re doing it.”
The incidents nevertheless damage U.S. credibility and must stop, he said.
“These are serious matters, and we shouldn’t overlook them and pretend they’re not serious,” he said.
But, Panetta said, the incidents won’t be allowed to derail the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which he said was to “work to a point in 2013 where Afghans can take the lead in combat operations with our support and then ultimately be able to meet our drawdown at the end of 2014.”
On Panetta’s first official visit to Kyrgyzstan, officials said he would try to underscore how much the United States values the Transit Center at Manas Air Base, in the capital Bishkek. The base is in danger of closing while a substantial number of U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan.
More than 580,000 U.S. and allied personnel entered traveled through Manas while entering or leaving Afghanistan 2011, and about 3,500 aeromedical evacuation flights transited the base as well. Manas is likewise a key aerial refueling center, and launched nearly 5,000 refueling missions last year.
Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev, who took office in December, has promised to close the base when the current agreement between the United States and Kyrgyzstan — including yearly U.S. payments of $60 million — expires in July 2014, several months ahead of the final U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.