(KABUL, Afghanistan) — In a sign of possible frayed nerves in the military, U.S. Marines were asked to lay down their weapons on Wednesday before entering a tent where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was scheduled to speak.
It happened in Afghanistan’s Helmand province after Panetta had met with tribal elders in nearby villages, assuring them that the U.S. mission was on track. The unusual order came just days after a U.S. Army staff sergeant went off base and allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes.
The 200 Marines were inside a tent at Camp Leatherneck along with Afghan guards and troops from other countries waiting for Panetta to arrive when they were told abruptly by Sgt. Major Brandon Hall to exit the tent, leave their weapons elsewhere and return unarmed.
It’s an unusual break from protocol since Marines are expected to be armed at all times.
Afghan guards in the room, along with other foreign troops, were also unarmed during Panetta’s address. A defense official told reporters there was no heightened threat, but that the order to disarm was done to be “consistent” so that Americans troops wouldn’t be the only ones carrying weapons. The request reportedly did not come from Panetta or his team.
The order for the Marines to put down their weapons came from Major Gen. Mark Gurganus, according to a press pool report. Gurganus said that since the Afghan soldiers were unarmed, he did not want them treated differently, but said it was not because of the shooting this weekend.
“You’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” he said. “This is not a big deal.”
This is Panetta’s third trip to Afghanistan and, arguably, his most important. The visit was planned months in advance, but carries additional significance. It comes at a time of deeply strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
Addressing NATO troops at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta addressed last Sunday’s massacre directly, which included nine children and three women, some of whose bodies were found with deep burn marks.
“We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve,” he said. “We will be tested, we will be challenged by the enemy, by ourselves, and by the hell of war itself,” he said.
He added, “Our strategy is working.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Billy Hallowell, Deseret News
Barbara Starr, CNN
Ray Sanchez, CNN
Ralph Ellis and Steve Almasy, CNN