Panetta, Afghanistan and Soldier Disarmament

16Mar12

Tensions between the U.S. and Afghanistan are probably the most strained they’ve been in forever, especially after a U.S. soldier massacred 16 civilians. The anger from Afghan leaders over the fact the soldier (apparently Sergeant Robert Bales) won’t be charged there is understandable. I’d be mad too if someone brutally killed women and children. It’s justifiable anger, even if I disagree with the notion that punishing the guy in Afghanistan shows the U.S. is “really interested in punishing him.” Originally I thought the U.S. should have told Kuwaiti leaders they were going to move the soldier to their country. I’ve changed my mind because Bales was going to be stored on a U.S. military base. Which means it’s technically U.S. soil and not Kuwait’s problem. The problem of the Kuwaitis finding out in the media shows there are problems with leaks. So it was a public relations issue for diplomats from both the U.S. and Kuwait to work out. Hopefully that will be figured out soon. Whatever the case, it was probably right with moving Bales to the U.S.

There’s still the question of where the soldier will eventually be tried and whether it will be in an Afghan or U.S. military court. The U.S. has previously tried soldiers accused of murder in the U.S. They did it two years ago with a staff sergeant accused of killing three Afghan civilians (he’s now serving a life sentence but could get parole). U.S. soldiers normally get tried in military tribunals, which has been the policy since the Revolutionary War.

But AP says this:

Afghan lawmakers have demanded that the shooter, identified by U.S. officials as a staff sergeant, face a public trial inside Afghanistan. They have called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to suspend any negotiations with the U.S. on a long-term military pact until this happens.

“No final decision has been made yet” on the location of the trial, said Col. Gary Kolb, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.

“We have done court martials in Afghanistan before, so we have the capability,” Kolb said. “They’ll take a look at all the circumstances and determine if they do it here or if it goes back to the States.”

Kolb’s quote makes it sound like Bales’ trial will be a military one. Which is smart because if the U.S. lets the Afghans try him it would set a dangerous legal precedence because no U.S. soldier has been tried in a foreign civilian court.

The fall out from the Afghanistan massacre has generated an interesting response.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended up addressing a group of U.S. and Afghan troops during a surprise trip to the country (the trip had been scheduled for quite some time). One thing I can’t figure out is why U.S. soldiers were disarmed before a meeting between them, Panetta and Afghan soldiers. I can understand the reasoning behind it, especially if Afghan soldiers were disarmed as well, but I’m not sure the move was wise.

From Bloomberg:

Marine Major General Charles “Mark” Gurganus, the new NATO International Security and Assistance Force commander for the area that covers Helmand Province, said he ordered the American and other coalition soldiers to turn in their weapons to avoid signaling that their Afghan allies can’t be trusted.

“Somebody had said we were going to have the Afghans leave their weapons outside,” said Gurganus. “I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners.”

This response actually gave me a headache. Again, I understand the reasoning behind it. Tensions are high and the coalition needs to stay together. But U.S. soldiers (and possibly British ones) were put at a disadvantage and a potentially dangerous situation if someone tried to go after the base or Panetta. Especially after a truck crashed near the runway Panetta’s plane was landing on. Now it’s not known if the crash was an attack or just someone trying to get away with a stolen truck (the U.S. says the latter).

But disarming soldiers for the sake of making Marines “look just like our Afghan partners” doesn’t make sense. The Telegraph says U.S. soldiers are normally armed during joint meetings where Afghan troops are present. So why change now? A recent UN poll says the regional police are still viewed as corrupt. And it was just two years ago, British troops saw the police as more of a problem than a solution. If the police are causing civilians to support the Taliban or are helping the Taliban, then U.S. troops need to be on their guard at all times. It’s true things have gotten better, but our soldiers are in a dangerous place and having them disarmed for a Panetta speech wasn’t the smartest thing to do.



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