Defense Secretary Leon Panetta got a first-hand glimpse of the precarious security situation in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, when a flaming vehicle got too close for comfort to Panetta's plane as he landed in Helmand Province for a long-scheduled visit.
While it could not be confirmed if the event was an attack on Panetta, the uncertainties and conflicting reports that followed the secretary’s arrival are not unusual for a region that has been the scene of intense fighting between coalition forces and the Taliban insurgency. The trip came as the Taliban vowed revenge following this past weekend's killing spree by a U.S. soldier who is accused of killing 16 civilians -- most of whom where women and children -- in Afghanistan. Close on the heels of protests following the revelation that American forces in the country had authorized the burning of Qurans, the incidents have reinvigorated the debate over the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Above, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta leaves after visiting with troops on March 14 at the Foward Operating Base in Shukvani, Afghanistan. Panetta was also scheduled to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his two-day visit.
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A U.S. Marine watches as an Osprey carrying U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrives March 14 at Forward Operating Base Shukvani, Afghanistan.While confusion remains after reports of a burning vehicle near his plane, Panetta went ahead with his talk to troops and left unharmed.
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A mourner cries over the bodies of Afghan civilians, allegedly shot by a rogue U.S. soldier, seen loaded into the back of a truck in the Alkozai village of Panjwayi district on March 11. NATO's International Security Assistance Force says it has arrested a soldier "in connection to an incident that resulted in Afghan casualties in Kandahar province."
Afghan police and local residents stand behind a minivan carrying the bodies of the victims of the U.S. soldier's alleged rampage in their village in the Panjwayi district on March 11. Civilian deaths caused by international forces fighting the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan have been a major source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western allies.
U.S. soldiers used a metal detector as they searched for mines in a field during a gathering of elders in the Ghourak district of the Kandahar province on March 10. Ghourak came under the control of Afghanistan's forces with the help of international forces only recently.
An Afghan police officer mans a machine gun at the scene of a bomb blast in Kandahar on March 14. A bomb hidden in a motorbike exploded in the southern city, killing an intelligence officer and injuring two others.
Troops from Afghanistan's National Army stand guard near the Mohammad mosque where an Afghan delegation met with locals in Kandahar province on March 13. Gunmen shot dead a member of the Afghan military and wounded a policeman during an attack on a memorial service for the 16 villagers killed by a U.S. soldier. It was the first deadly violence linked to the aftermath of the March 11 killings, which U.S. officials have warned could lead to a surge in anti-American violence in the war-torn country.
Afghan security officials and U.S. soldiers of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) inspect the scene of a suicide car bomb attack near the Kandahar police station on Feb. 20. The bomber detonated his explosive-laden vehicle next to the police station and the governor's compound in Kandahar city, killing at least one officer and injuring four people.
Panetta's visit and the U.S. soldier's attack on civilians came at a moment of heightened tensions in Afghanistan, after reports that U.S. troops had ordered copies of the Quran burned. Above, a wounded Afghan boy stands at the gate of Bagram Airbase during a protest against Quran desecration on Feb. 21. Guards at Bagram Airbase responded by firing rubber bullets from a watchtower.
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The southern provinces have seen increasing violence for a number of years. Above, a medic waits as a wounded Afghan man is brought to a helicopter to be airlifted to Kandahar Hospital on August 26, 2011. The man was hit by an IED and lost his right leg. At that time, there were around 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan helping local forces to fight a ten-year Taliban-led insurgency.
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A U.S. Marine runs to safety as an IED explodes in the Garmsir district of Helmand province on July 13, 2009. A foot patrol had advanced with metal detectors and bare hands to defuse bombs planted on a rough track when an explosion shot a cloud of dust and rocks into the sky, killing Sgt. Michael W. Heede Junior and Staff Sgt. David S. Spicer. The unit had been in Afghanistan only months as part of a surge of 21,000 extra U.S. troops sent to quell the Taliban insurgency.
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A U.S. soldier walks in the dust inside an abandoned house in Haji Ghaffar village after blowing up an unexploded tank round during a clearance patrol in the Zari district of Kandahar province on Dec. 27, 2010. U.S. Army soldiers patrolled the abandoned village of Haji Ghaffar to clear the area from explosives as Afghan villagers moved back to their homes. The residents left their village about three years ago when it turned into a battlefield.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends the last memorial service of his brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, in the Dand district of Kandahar province on July 13, 2011. The weeping Afghan president led thousands of mourners through the burial of his brother, who was assassinated by his own head of security in the southern city of Kandahar. Though Ahmed Wali Karzai was dogged by allegations of links to the drugs trade and corruption, his death was a huge blow for NATO and the government.
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A broom with blood stains at the 159th Brigade Task Force Thunder at Forward Operating Base Pasab on Aug. 28, 2011.
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