U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday called the Quran burning and killing of 16 Afghans “deeply troubling” incidents that had challenged the war effort in Afghanistan.
Visiting Afghanistan just days after a shooting spree by a U.S. soldier, he insisted that NATO and Afghan forces were making progress and had to stay focused on the mission to defeat al-Qaeda and reverse a Taliban insurgency.
Speaking to Marines, coalition troops and Afghan soldiers at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta acknowledged the Quran burning, Sunday’s killings and attacks on coalition troops by Afghan soldiers had posed difficult challenges.
“Each of these incidents is deeply troubling,” he said.
“We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve.”
“We will be tested, we will be challenged by the enemy, by ourselves and by the hell of war itself,” Panetta added.
But he said: “thanks to your efforts, our strategy is working.”
Panetta held talks with Helmand provincial leaders, which Pentagon spokesman George Little described as an :excellent discussion.”
“Secretary Panetta told them that the United States remains focused on the mission, and that recent events will not deter us from carrying it out,” the spokesman said.
“Those events do not represent the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces, or U.S. and ISAF (the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan) forces -- the vast majority of whom are trying to do the right thing,” he added.
Little then quoted provincial and military leaders as noting “we have never been closer to achieving our objectives” in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, a roadside bomb attack killed eight civilians in Helmand, during Panetta’s visit.
“A roadside mine planted by the Taliban blasted in Marja district when a minivan touched it, triggering a big explosion. As a result eight civilians were killed,” provincial spokesman Daud Ahmadi told AFP.
The blast happened about a 15-minute helicopter flight from Camp Bastion, where Panetta landed for talks with local government officials before a planned meeting with President Hamid Karzai.
A motorcycle bomb blast in Kandahar city shortly before the Helmand attack killed at least one Afghan security officer and wounded two others.
On Tuesday, suspected Taliban insurgents opened fire on an Afghan government delegation attending a memorial service for the murdered civilians in Panjwai district in Kandahar province, where the shooting took place.
The hail of gunfire left one member of the Afghan security forces dead and one policeman wounded.