By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT - Recent tragic events in Afghanistan highlight important lessons, but should not detract from significant progress achieved or derail the overall International Security Assistance Force objectives there, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.
"We cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy," he emphasized.
Panetta told reporters traveling with him en route to Kyrgyzstan that yesterday's shooting, when a U.S. service member allegedly killed 16 Afghan villagers and wounded eight or nine others in villages near a remote outpost in Kandahar province, was a criminal act and a terrible loss of life.
"We were all deeply shocked and saddened," the secretary said. Panetta reiterated what he told Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a telephone conversation yesterday, offering his "deepest condolences" to the families of those killed and wounded, to the villagers where the shootings happened, and to the Afghan people.
Panetta said he spoke today with Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, who told him all indications are that the service member who carried out the shootings did so on his own, and alone.
"As best as we can determine, this individual went out on his own in the middle of the night ... and went into these homes and started shooting," the secretary said.
The service member then returned to his forward operating base and turned himself in, and is now in custody, Panetta said.
Investigation into the events continues, the secretary added, and military leaders are awaiting results to learn "why this soldier did the terrible thing he did."
"He will be brought to justice and held accountable," Panetta said.
Afghan and ISAF forces have worked together effectively to maintain security following those killings, Panetta emphasized, just as they did in the aftermath of another recent incident in which coalition forces accidentally burned several copies of Islam's holy book, the Quran.
"The Afghan army has really performed in outstanding fashion," the secretary said. Even in the face of widespread civilian protests over the accidental Quran burnings, Afghan forces have done "very well in maintaining order," with no large-scale desertions, he noted.
"They recognize what they have to do and they're doing it," he added. "What we've accomplished to this point is beginning to pay off."
Panetta stressed that both recent incidents deserve close study, noting it's important for military leaders to learn everything they can to prevent such things from happening again. At the same time, he added, it's critical to "bring the war to a responsible end and achieve the mission."
That mission, he told reporters, is defeating al-Qaida and preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven from which terrorists can launch attacks against the United States and other nations.
The secretary noted Afghan and international forces have achieved real progress toward those goals. "The level of violence [in Afghanistan] ... is at its lowest point in five years," he said. "It's down 24 percent this year alone."
Afghan army and police forces now lead security efforts for half of their nation's people, and the transition from NATO to Afghan security responsibility is well into its second stage, Panetta noted. That transition is set to finish by the end of 2014, while the 23,000 U.S. troops remaining from the 30,000-person "surge" of 2010 will leave Afghanistan by the end of September.
Under that timetable, fewer than 70,000 U.S troops will remain by October, and the "ultimate drawdown" of those forces is set to conclude before 2015, the secretary said.
Panetta said Allen will provide him with recommendations for the timing of that troop withdrawal. He sees no reason to change the overall strategy at this point, he added.
The secretary acknowledged while domestic political pressure may argue for accelerating the pace of drawdown, "I think it's very important for policy makers to keep [their] eye on the target."
"The test has to be whether or not Afghanistan is working with us to maintain the strategy," he said. "Despite these events, President [Hamid] Karzai continues to cooperate with us."
The two nations have agreed to a process for transitioning to Afghan oversight the Parwan detention facility near Bagram Airfield, he said, and are working on an agreement over "night raids" targeting high-value insurgents.
In the goal of establishing Afghanistan's ability to secure its own people, 2011 was an important transition point, Panetta said.
"We need to ensure that what happened over these last few weeks does not happen again ... These are serious matters," he said.
But he added, "We're on the right path now ... I do not believe there is any reason at this point to make any [strategic] changes."