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Afghan shooting: Panetta visits wary Afghanistan

Afghan shooting spree by a US soldier Sunday sends US-Afghanistan relations into further disarray following earlier incidents of Quran burnings and the urination on Taliban corpses. 

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta fields questions from the media on a flight to Kyrgystan, Monday, regarding the American soldier who is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, most of them children, on Sunday in southern Kandahar province. Mr. Panetta arrived in the south of Afghanistan for a surprise visit on Wednesday morning.

Scott Olson/AP

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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.

“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.


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