US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Photo Reuters
A suicide bomber killed one American service member and
wounded three other US troops outside a base in southern
Afghanistan shortly after a visit there by US Defense Secretary
Leon Panetta, officials say.
Panetta dismissed the attack as a desperate and futile
attempt by insurgents to sow chaos in Afghanistan.
He announced that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would head to
the United States in the week of Jan 7. for talks with
President Barack Obama on the future the US presence in
Afghanistan after the NATO-led mission ends in 2014.
But the attack, which was reported to have wounded more than
a dozen Afghans, was a reminder of how insurgent violence is
still adding to the death toll in the 11-year war -- even as
the United States and its allies prepare to hand over
security to the Afghans.
"That was the type of attack that we've seen throughout the
country," Panetta said. "This is what they resort to in order
to try to continue to try to stimulate chaos in this country.
They will not be successful at doing that."
Panetta travelled to Afghanistan in part to firm up options
to present to Obama about how many troops to keep in the
country once the NATO combat mission ends.
To that end, Panetta said Karzai and Obama would in
Washington "discuss a shared vision of Afghanistan beyond
2014," including discussions about residual US troop levels.
Panetta did not rule out the possibility that an announcement
could be made at that time.
"Ultimately I assume that when they feel it is appropriate,
that (the size of the residual US force) will be revealed to
not only the American people, but the Afghan people as well,"
Panetta said, flanked by Karzai at a news conference in
Obama campaigned for re-election partly on a promise to wind
down the war in Afghanistan. One US official has told Reuters
that options under consideration included keeping as few as
6,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared to 68,000 now.
At the start of their private meeting at Karzai's palace in
Kabul, the president asked Panetta about the attack at
Kandahar Airfield and whether the insurgents knew he was
visiting the base. Panetta responded that the attack was on
the outskirts of the base after he was gone.
The suicide car bomber rammed into an armored vehicle at
approximately 5:15 p.m. around the perimeter of Kandahar
Airfield, in the country's south. Just hours earlier, Panetta
had praised US troops there for their sacrifice and noted the
death toll from the Afghan conflict.
"We've spilled a lot of blood here -- all of you have spilled
a lot of blood... Over 2,000...have been killed in action
here," he said.
"But the bottom line is that those sacrifices, all of those
sacrifices are not in vain. We have made good progress in
achieving the mission that we have embarked upon -- and it's
because of you."
A trip by Panetta to Afghanistan in March was overshadowed by
an attack on his welcoming party by an Afghan translator, who
drove a stolen vehicle onto the runway ramp. At some point
the man set himself on fire in a failed attempt to detonate
the vehicle and died of his injuries.
US military commanders, briefing media traveling with Panetta
this week, have praised the growing capabilities of the
Afghan Army and, after a rapid buildup in its troop levels,
suggested Afghan forces would be able to be able to secure
the country once most foreign troops depart.
US Major General Lawrence Nicholson, who runs day-to-day
operations for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, said on
Wednesday that Afghan forces would not be perfect in 2015 but
would be up to the job, with very limited US support.
At Kandahar Airfield, the top NATO commander of the southern
region of Afghanistan said he would need fewer troops there
next year because of security gains and the growing
capability of the Afghans.
"I fully expect by next summer we will have less ISAF forces
here -- because we'll need less ISAF forces," Major General
Robert Abrams said.