The situation in Afghanistan has entered the realm of the bizzare.
Barely three days after a U.S. soldier went on a shooting rampage that left 16 Afghan civilians dead, there were two more incidents that suggested our involvement in that war is quickly unraveling.
The first episode occurred as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was landing a Camp Bastion, a British airfield in Helmand Province next to Camp Leatherneck, a major U.S. Marine Corps installation. As Panetta's C-17 was landing, a stolen pick-up truck, driven by an Afghan, sped onto the ramp at Camp Bastion and crashed into a ditch. The driver emerged from the vehicle on fire; he was immediately captured and taken to a military hospital, for treatment of burns.
But it wasn't an attempted attack on Mr. Panetta, according to American officials quoted by The New York Times.
No explosives were found on the driver, a civilian, or in the truck, the officials said, and the Pentagon was not immediately considering the episode an attack on Mr. Panetta. But it reinforced the lack of security in Afghanistan at the beginning of his two-day visit, the first by a senior member of the Obama administration since an American soldier reportedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, mostly children and women, in Kandahar Province.
Let's see...a stolen vehicle, driven by an Afghan, rolls onto the ramp just as the SecDef's plane was landing, but it wasn't an attack. True, no explosives were found in the truck, but a vehicle slamming into a jet aircraft (with a large fuel load) can certainly cause a lot of damage, and possibly kill the crew and passengers.
And, no one's bothered to explain how the truck got past security and onto the flightline in the first place. Incidentally, the ditch where the vehicle came to rest was alongside the same ramp where Panetta's plane was scheduled to park. Coincidence? You decide. In light of the airbase incident, there were reports of pending changes in the "vetting" of Afghan workers on NATO bases in Afghanistan. We're guessing that familes of U.S. military personnel killed by their Afghan "colleagues" (after the recent Koran-burning incident) should take some comfort in that.
But after surviving the "non-attack," Panetta's visit grew even stranger. Before his speech at Camp Leatherneck, Marines in attendance were asked to leave their weapons outside. It was the first time U.S. military personnel had been asked to disarm during an appearance by a senior official.
Around 200 troops who had gathered in a tent at Camp Leatherneck were told "something had come to light" and asked abruptly to file outside and lay down their automatic rifles and 9mm pistols.
"Somebody got itchy, that's all I've got to say. Somebody got itchy – we just adjust," said the sergeant who was told to clear the hall of weapons.
Major General Mark Gurganus later said he gave the order because Afghan troops attending the talk were unarmed and he wanted the policy to be consistent for all.
"You've got one of the most important people in the world in the room," he told the New York Times, insisting that the decision was unrelated to Sunday's killings. "This is not a big deal."
The contradiction between the NCO's remarks (from a Sergeant Major) and General Gurganus couldn't be more striking. The "itchy" remark was an obvious reference to the recent rampage by that soldier. Did someone in the chain of command think a Marine was going to take a pot-shot at Mr. Panetta? Yet, General Gurganus said it was "no big deal," despite the fact that his decision was precedent-setting.
Judging from the picture at the Drudge Report, the general may get an earful the next time he speaks to those Marines. The Marine in the photo is clearly upset, and we're guessing his buddies feel the same way. They represent the line between hope and chaos in Helmand, but their leaders aren't comfortable with them being armed in the same tent as the SecDef. It was an insult of the first order, putting brave men and women on the same level as the soldier who murdered Afghan civilians and the various Afghans who have killed Americans because of some perceived slight.
As Victor Davis Hanson observed on John Batchelor's radio show last night, we are witnessing the rapid unraveling of the American mission in Afghanistan. Unable to articulate a coherent strategy for the run-up to our planned withdrawal, President Obama can only offer the occasional apology for miscues, mistakes and incidents that are deliberately exploited by the Taliban.
In some respects, Mr. Obama resembles Lincoln before he found Ulysses Grant (and a plan for winning the Civil War). President Lincoln stumbled through a series of commanders and failed plans before bringing Grant east, and giving him the resources to crush the Confederates, once and for all. By our count, Mr. Obama has gone through four commanders during his stewardship of the Afghan War, and veered from a "maintenance" to a surge strategy, with a firm exit date.
And there's the difference between Lincoln and Obama, who likes to compare himself to the 16th President. Mr. Lincoln was willing to fight on and eventually found a way to win; Obama's focus is purely on the "optics" of this conflict and their relationship to his re-election chances. No wonder the Marines at Panetta's speech look so glum.
To be fair, the situation in Afghanistan could be described as beyond repair. But an equally fair question is now the "good" war got that way. During Mr. Obama's surge, American casualties have doubled, and our gains on the ground have been modest in many areas. Liberals blame George W. Bush for "taking his eye off the ball," but conditions in Afghanistan have taken a turn for the worse since his sucessor took office.
There is no doubt we will be out of Afghanistan in 2014, but that timetable sets the stage for something even worse: the full-fledged return of the Taliban and their Al Qaida allies. As Dr. Hanson observed on the radio, the terrorists apparently learned more from their defeat in Iraq than we learned from our victory.
ADDENDUM: Two days after the fact, the Pentagon has changed its tune on the Camp Bastion incident, describing the stolen truck (and its burning driver) as an attempted attack against a group of VIPs waiting for Secretary Panetta. They also told the Washington Post they could not rule out the possibility that the incident was aimed at the Defense Secretary.
It's also worth noting that The New York Times ignored the subsequent disarming of the Marines in its reporting on the incident, and the latest coverage from the Post omitted that fact as well. What a coincidence.