Leon Panetta's big task in Afghanistan is trust-building. Impossible? (+video)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Afghanistan to try to repair relations after the Quran-burning incident and a mass shooting of civilians. The fact that the US has spirited away the accused shooter complicates his mission.
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Mr. Panetta’s goal in meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Thursday is to try to mend these fissures before they become irreparable (if, critics say, they haven’t already). To do that, though, he must tackle some persistent sticking points in the relationship between the US military and Afghan officials. Chief among these: Special Operations night raids, which are widely reviled among Afghans, and accountability for US soldiers – in Afghan courts – for crimes against civilians, made all the more pressing after Sunday's massacre of 16 Afghans allegedly at the hands of a US soldier.
Well aware of these points, some US commanders on the ground have been launching their own trust-building efforts, of sorts, to reach out to Afghan security forces.
One such attempt was in evidence as Mr. Panetta touched down at the Marines’ Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday. An American commander ordered US troops to leave their weapons at the door before entering a hangar where Panetta was to address a crowd of 200.
The move was widely criticized – US troops should not be forced to give up their weapons in a war zone, some American television analysts raged. Marine Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus said he was simply trying to smooth relations with Afghan forces.
The issue of equity is at the heart of Afghan demands that the rogue US soldier who allegedly went on a shooting rampage Sunday be held accountable in Afghan courts. The US has been unwilling to hand over its military personnel to foreign courts: In the case of Iraq, the Pentagon’s insistence on immunity for US troops accused of crimes against civilians ultimately led to the full military exodus from that country, as Iraqi officials refused to compromise on this point.
Mr. Karzai, for his part, may be more willing to make a deal to keep US forces in Afghanistan past 2014, when combat troops are slated to leave. This is at least in part because he has little choice, analysts point out: The Karzai government would be in danger of collapse if US forces abruptly pulled up stakes.