Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in the south of Afghanistan for a surprise visit on Wednesday morning. Though the trip had been planned months in advance, Mr. Panetta comes here at a critical moment.
US-Afghan relations have been strained following the alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue US soldier on Sunday and the inadvertent burning of Qurans at US military base last month.
In the immediate aftermath of these recent incidents, Panetta left a war-weary home front, where many Americans, including Republican presidential candidates, are calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Defense secretary is likely to find Afghanistan no more welcoming as existing anger and frustration with America has grown to new heights in recent weeks.
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“When you look at the situation right now, a large percentage of Afghans have a seriously negative attitude toward the Americans. The floodgates are open now and it will be very difficult to control the situation,” says Naqibullah, a parliament member from Laghman Province. Like many Afghans, he goes by only one name. “I don’t think Panetta will be able to say or do something that can remove the distrust of Afghans.”
Panetta landed in Helmand, a southern province directly to the west of Kandahar, where Sunday’s shooting occurred. During his two-day visit, he is scheduled to meet with troops and commanders, as well as local leaders.
While the recent incidents are likely to take center stage given the timing of his visit, Panetta is also expected to discuss the forthcoming withdrawal of about 22,000 troops from Afghanistan this fall. Additionally, it’s anticipated that he’ll address the size of Afghan security forces. Presently, the target size of the force is 350,000 personnel, but international donors, without whom the Afghan military cannot survive, are hoping for a more cost-effective 230,000 member fighting force.
So far, Panetta has pledged no change to US strategy following the string of recent incidents, which also includes a video of US Marines urinating on dead bodies released in January.
Without a major policy shift, Afghan officials say that Panetta must find a way to reassure Afghans that the US military understands their culture and is capable of curbing these types of incidents.
“Panetta should try to focus a lot on these issues and promise Afghans that this will not happen in the future, because it’s not just a sad and tragic incident for Afghans, but it’s also creating lots of problems for the US and NATO in Afghanistan,” says Ali Akbar Qasimi, an parliament member from Ghazni Province. “The enemy is trying to use these kinds of chances to put pressure on Americans and the Afghan government by spreading propaganda.”
Amid the climate of roiling anti-American sentiments, one of the most critical tasks ahead of Panetta may be establishing US credibility here. Over the past year, a number of Afghans have grown suspicious of American intentions, when among other issues, US officials engaged in talks with Taliban officials without the knowledge of the Afghan government.
“All these problems that have happened recently are the outcome of the distrust between the Afghan and American administrations,” says Younas Fakor, independent analyst in Kabul. “America has to talk directly to the Afghan nation. If they carry out any investigation about the Quran burning incident or the Kandahar murder, they must directly put the results in front of the Afghan nation.”
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