Panetta visits Afghanistan in wake of shooting rampage
REPORTING FROM CAMP BASTION, AFGHANISTAN -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday in the aftermath of a shooting rampage blamed on an American soldier that has shaken the U.S.-led war effort.
Panetta's long-planned visit has taken on the feel of a rescue mission, aimed in part at reassuring Afghan officials and troops from the U.S. and other countries that the shootings in Kandahar province would not force changes in strategy.
"I do not believe that there is any reason to make any changes in the strategy," Panetta told reporters with him before arriving at a U.S. air base in Helmand province.
Panetta was scheduled to meet with President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials, as well as visit troops and U.S. commanders. He is not scheduled to visit Kandahar province.
Panetta said he plans to stress that the U.S. is taking swift action to investigate and punish the shooter, allegedly a U.S. Army staff sergeant assigned to a special operations base in Panjwayi district near the border with Pakistan.
Defense officials traveling with Panetta said the Kandahar shooting, which killed 16 Afghans, nine of them children, was having less effect on Afghans than the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S.-run detention facility last month. That incident sparked anti-American riots and reprisals against U.S. troops.
"This was an isolated criminal attack ... the act of an individual," said a senior Defense official traveling with Panetta. "The other one was something that touched all Afghans and Muslims around the world."
But the full impact of the massacre remains to be seen. There are already signs that it is slowing down U.S. negotiations with Karzai on a long-term alliance.
The killings could also force the U.S. to accept new restrictions on so-called night raids, the special operations missions aimed at capturing or killing insurgents. Karzai has long protested the raids in public, and U.S. officials have been trying to negotiate an agreement with him.
"These last few weeks have been very difficult for everyone involved, and they've really tested the relationship," the official said.
The Kandahar killings could also affect debates in Washington about how quickly the United States and its allies withdraw combat troops over the next three years, another senior Defense official said.
President Obama and Panetta have yet to decide how quickly U.S. forces will exit Afghanistan after next summer, when troops levels are due to fall to 68,000.
Top commanders favor keeping the bulk of those troops at least through late 2013, but some White House officials favor announcing deeper cuts sooner, to show U.S. voters that Obama is committed to ending the unpopular war.
Administration aides who favor a quicker drawdown may cite the Kandahar massacre as a reason to remove more forces.
Seeking to rebut assertions that the war is going poorly, a senior Defense official said insurgent attacks were down 27% in January across Afghanistan compared with the same month last year. Insurgent attack with roadside bombs were down 30% that month, he said.
"The enemy-initiated violence continues to decrease," said the official, noting that 2011 was the first year in the decade-old conflict when such attacks had dropped.
Panetta is not planning to visit eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgency remains potent. Attacks are down there too, but commanders say at least part of the reduction is due to heavy winter snowfall that has hampered militants.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Kyrgyzstan Defense Minister Taalaybek Omuraliyev at a meeting Tuesday in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A base in that country is a transit point for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Credit: Igor Kovalenko / EPA