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On Afghan Trip, Panetta Meets With Karzai


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in Afghanistan. It's a long-planned trip that's turned into something of a fence-mending mission. Yesterday, Panetta met with U.S. Marines and Afghan troops in the southern province of Helmand.

It was in a neighboring province that 16 Afghans - mostly children - were massacred, apparently at the hands of an American Army sergeant. That attack is the latest in a series of negative events involving U.S. forces, including the burning of Qurans, which sparked deadly riots - all of which will be on the minds of the defense secretary and Afghanistan's president as they meet today.

NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with Panetta, and joined us to talk about it.

Larry, good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, Secretary Panetta meets with President Hamid Karzai today. That's obviously going to be a difficult conversation. What do you think he'll be saying?

ABRAMSON: We haven't been briefed on exactly what they're going to discuss, Renee. But, of course, foremost on everybody's mind here is the fact that this massacre occurred on Sunday. It's going to dictate the discussion of one of the issues, which is the conduct of night raids. The U.S. government has told us that those night raids are very important for them to root out Taliban. But, of course, these shootings also happened in the middle of the night - so, trying to bring down the tension over some of these issues so that the U.S. can continue its strategy in the next few months, all of which is aimed, of course, towards a drawdown of forces over the next couple of years.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about that U.S. soldier who's accused of carrying out the massacre of civilians in these villages in Kandahar. He was flown to Kuwait today. What else do we know about him?

ABRAMSON: We don't know very much. They have continued to refuse to release his name. We have been told that he comes from this base in Washington State, that he's an Army sergeant, and that he surrendered eventually after these killings, but they're keeping this very close to their vest.

There have been reports that a number of lawmakers here in Afghanistan wanted him to be tried in Afghanistan, and that they continue to be upset about the fact that the U.S. decided to try him in a military court.

MONTAGNE: And yesterday, there was an incident where Secretary Panetta's plane was landing a stolen pickup truck drove onto the runway, crashed and burned. Is that being considered an attack on the secretary?

ABRAMSON: The Pentagon says it was not an attack on the secretary. They have no indication that it was linked to the secretary's visit. It did happen very close to the same time as the secretary and the press plane was landing on this air base. But it does, of course, detract attention from the secretary's major message when he came here, which is that the fight should go on against the Taliban, regardless of the incident.

MONTAGNE: Now, we're just into the second day of this trip, but so far, how effective would you say this trip has been for the troops that Secretary of Defense Panetta has met, and from a policy standpoint with the government there?

ABRAMSON: I think you can say that the troops are grateful to be thanked by such a high-ranking official, and the visit to Helmand is supposed to be a sign of all of the progress that the U.S. military has made. As you know, that was a Taliban stronghold. It's now reasonably secure, and it's one of the examples that military officials are holding up of a successful transition to Afghan control.

Of course, the big question is: Are the Afghans really in control, or are they continuing to depend on the advisers that the U.S. is going to keep here, even after 2014? We're being told over and over again that the Afghan forces are more independent. But as the U.S. holds out more than 20,000 surge troops over the course of the summer, that independence is going to be tested.

MONTAGNE: Larry, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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