On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addressed 200 Marines at Camp Leatherneck, a vast U.S. Marine base in Helmand Province. Before the Marines were allowed to enter the tent to hear Panetta speak they were ordered to leave their weapons outside, a decision that left many scratching their heads: why would the Defense Secretary order Marines to disarm?
A Bizarre Landing
Earlier that day, when Panetta’s plan was landing at Camp Bastion, a British airfield adjacent to Camp Leatherneck, a stolen pickup truck cruised onto the airfield.
The truck crashed into a ditch just as Panetta’s plane was touching down. The driver got out of the vehicle; then lit himself on fire.
There were no explosives found on the driver or in the truck. The man turned out to be a civilian, who had worked in the past as a translator for the military.
His motive for stealing the truck remains unknown and the Pentagon did not initially consider it to be an assault on Mr. Panetta.
“We don’t know the intent or motivation of the individual who stole the vehicle and stole it across a ramp,” Pentagon spokesperson Capt. John Kirby told reporters.
“We don’t have any indication right now that this was meant as a threat to the secretary — as a fact we don’t have any indication that the driver knew who was coming in on that aircraft,” Capt. Kirby added. “At no time was the secretary’s safety in danger or the danger of anyone in the secretary’s party.”
Marines Ordered to Disarm
One report suggests that the stolen truck incident had underscored the lack of security on the base and put head shed on high alert.
Sergeant major Brandon Hall indicated as much when he spoke to reporters.
“All I know is I was told to get the weapons out,” he said. Asked why, he replied: “Somebody got itchy — that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy. We just adjust.”
It goes without saying that Marines are an unflappable fighting force. And separating a Marine from his weapon under any circumstance but especially on a battlefield is highly unusual.
In the past, when the defense secretary had visited American troops in Afghanistan (or Iraq), our troops always remained armed while the other coalition forces, such as the Afghan security forces, were told to disarm.
But this time, everyone was told to disarm.
The other report to explain the gun control order was that the top brass wanted to create “consistency” between Afghan security forces and the Marines, as both would be attending the speech.
Major Gen. Mark Gurganus, who was said to have been responsible for the gun control order, told reporters that there was no heightened threat, but that the order to disarm was done to be “consistent” so that Americans troops wouldn’t be the only ones carrying weapons.
“I wanted to have the Marines look just like their Afghan partners,” noting, “You’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room. This is not a big deal.”
Major Gen. Gurganus insisted that his reasoning for the disarmament had nothing to do with the stolen truck incident or the massacre of the 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier earlier in the week (the solider has been identified as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, he’s pictured above, for more details click here).
In his speech, Panetta spoke to the troops about the massacre in Kandahar. He vowed to not let it alter the mission.
“We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve,” he said. “We will be tested, we will be challenged by the enemy, by ourselves, and by the hell of war itself,” he said.
He added, “Our strategy is working.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban has pledged to get revenge, stating on its website that it plans to kill and behead the “sadistic murderous soldiers” behind the attack.
Cover photo courtesy of Scott Olson / NY TImes