By Chris Lawrence, with reporting from pool producer Larry Shaughnessy
U.S. Marines waiting for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to speak at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan Wednesday were ordered to leave the room and place their weapons outside.
The request, relayed by Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall, was unusual because it’s not customary to disarm for a defense secretary visit, but the Marines did as they were told. About two dozen unarmed Afghan soldiers also were in attendance.
Panetta arrived in Afghanistan Wednesday for a two-day visit amid heightened tensions after an American soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes Sunday.
The order to disarm came from Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, who commands troops in Helmand province.
Asked about the move, Hall told the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller: “Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust.”
Gurganus later told reporters the decision had nothing to do with the weekend shooting, and said it was because the Afghan soldiers in attendance were unarmed and he did not want them treated differently than the Marines.
“This is not a big deal,” Gurganus said. But he then added that “you’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” referring to Panetta. When it was pointed out that this had not been the custom, Gurganus — who is new to the post — replied, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
A senior defense official told CNN that Gurganus made the decision to have all coalition troops disarm on Tuesday, but “the order never got passed down the line to the individual units. So, unfortunately, it wasn’t until all the Marines were sitting down Wednesday that anyone realized what the general really wanted. It looked bad. But at that point they needed to comply with the order.”
Several Marines said they had never seen a situation like this, although they do not believe the decision resulted from any security concerns. The senior defense official said Gurganus was under orders to make partnership a priority, and he felt that “it wouldn’t be right to have armed Marines sitting next to unarmed Afghan soldiers. He wants to promote the mission of partnership.”
Security procedures involving the handling of weapons vary according to protocols issued by International Security Assistance Force command, as well as the discretion of individual regional and base commanders.
At some bases, troops entering mess halls are required to remove the clip from their weapon and clear any rounds from the chamber. The senior defense official also said security has been increased in varying degrees in the past month or so, following the Quran burning. For example, in Kabul, as recently as seven days ago troops were required to carry their weapons everywhere, with the ammunition clip loaded but no round chambered, the official said.
The order for the Marines to disarm at Camp Leatherneck was not connected to a separate incident that took place Wednesday at an adjoining British military base in Afghanistan, the defense official said.
In that incident, an Afghan national stole a vehicle and drove it through at least one layer of perimeter security onto the runway at Camp Bastion around the same time Panetta was arriving there from a previous visit to Kyrgystan, a defense official said. A British soldier was injured by the vehicle before it was driven into a ditch, a defense official said. The driver ran out of the vehicle on fire. Coalition troops were able to extinguish the fire and he was transported for treatment, according to Pentagon spokesman George Little.
The Afghan national was wearing a “desert utility uniform,” similar to the ones coalition troops give to translators and other unarmed locals working with them, a defense official said. Coalition troops searched the man after putting out the flames and apprehending him, but they did not find an explosive device on him, according to the official. No motive or the Afghan’s intent was known.
NATO officials said Panetta was never in any danger during his time at Camp Bastion. His plane was diverted upon landing, according to Little.
Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion are adjoining bases located in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The United States runs the facilities at Camp Leatherneck, while the British oversee Camp Bastion.