CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a series of meetings with troops and Afghan leaders Wednesday, said the U.S. must never lose sight of its mission in the war, despite recent violence including what appeared to be an attempted attack near the runway of a military base where he was about to land.
It wasn't clear whether it was an attempt to attack the defense chief, whose travel to southern Afghanistan was not made public before he arrived. Panetta was informed of the incident after landing.
"We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve to that mission," he told about 200 Marines at Camp Leatherneck. "We will be tested we will be challenged, we'll be challenged by our enemy, we'll be challenged by ourselves, we'll be challenged by the hell of war itself. But none of that, none of that, must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve."
According to Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby, an Afghan stole a vehicle at a British airfield in southern Afghanistan and drove it onto a runway, crashing into a ditch about the same time that Leon Panetta's aircraft was landing.
He said the pickup truck drove at high speed onto the ramp where Panetta's plane was intended to stop.
No one in Panetta's party was injured.
Panetta's trip to the warfront, which included three stops in the south, was planned months ago, long before the weekend shooting spree allegedly by a U.S. soldier that claimed the lives of 16 villagers, including women and children.
Everywhere he went, including a meeting with provincial leaders, Panetta referred obliquely to the massacre, but didn't go into it in detail. Instead, he talked about the need for the Afghan and coalition forces to keep working together to help transition security of the country to the Afghan forces.
The trip, however, has propelled Panetta into the center of escalating anti-American anger in Afghanistan, with the shooting spree coming on the heels of the burning of Qurans and other religious materials at a U.S. base. U.S. officials have said the incident was a mistake.
Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the new Marine commander at Leatherneck, told reporters he has seen little backlash in his region over the shooting incident, and saw only a few protests of the Quran burning.
Panetta and other U.S. officials say the shooting spree should not derail the U.S. and NATO strategy of a gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. But it has further soured relations with war-weary Afghans, jeopardizing the U.S. strategy of working closely with Afghan forces on the transition.
There were clear concerns about security in the large tent at Camp Leatherneck, where Panetta was slated to talk to troops.
Before Panetta came into the hall, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall told the more than 200 Marines in the room to take their weapons outside and leave them there. Afghan troops had already been told not to bring their guns in.
"Something has come to light," Hall told the troops. It was a highly unusual order, and some in the audience said they had never seen that happen before.
Asked about the order, Hall said all he knew was that "I was told to get the weapons out."
A U.S. defense official said the request was not a reaction to an immediate threat. Speaking on condition of anonymity to describe security procedures, the official said the base commander made the decision that no one would be allowed to bring in weapons.
The official said the decision was made out of respect for troops from other countries, such as the Afghans, who are never allowed to bring guns into an event. It was not a request from Panetta or his security team, the official said.
Panetta met with several Afghan provincial leaders, and told them the primary mission is to prepare for the transition to Afghan security control.
He acknowledged there will continue to be challenges from the enemy as well as issues between U.S. and Afghan allies, but said everyone must remain committed.
The military has detained an Army staff sergeant in connection with Sunday's massacre. An Afghan official said Tuesday that surveillance video showed the sergeant walking up to his base and raising his arms in surrender.
The official, who spoke anonymously to discuss a private briefing, said U.S. authorities showed Afghan authorities the surveillance video to prove that only one perpetrator was involved in the Sunday shootings.
A delegation investigating the shootings was meeting in the southern city of Kandahar on Wednesday when a bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded about 600 yards away. The blast killed one Afghan intelligence official and wounded three other people, but the delegation members were unharmed.
Even before the shootings, anti-Americanism was already roiling in Afghanistan over U.S. troops burning Muslim holy books, including Qurans, last month on an American base. The burnings came to light soon after a video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses was posted on the Internet in January.
Military commanders have yet to release their final investigation on the Quran burnings, which U.S. officials say was a mistake. Five U.S. service members could face disciplinary action in connection with the incident.
Panetta's two-day visit is scheduled to include meetings with President Hamid Karzai, Afghan defense officials and provincial leaders, as well as routine discussions with his commanders on the ground. The sessions are likely to touch on America's planned withdrawal of about 22,000 troops by fall, including as many as 10,000 Marines from Helmand Province.
Gerganus told reporters Wednesday that the Marine numbers could change, but he wouldn't say if more would be pulled out by the end of summer, or if he needed to have fewer leave.
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.