Afghan interpreter targeted top US Marine general, officers in Helmand

The Associated Press got to the bottom of the strange incident in Helmand in which an Afghan interpreter crashed a truck at Bastion Air Field just before US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was scheduled to land, and then set himself on fire. The Afghan interpreter was actually attempting to kill Major General Mark Gurganus. From the AP:

The top U.S. commander in Helmand Province and his British deputy were with the U.S. Marines that an Afghan man tried to run down as they waited for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arrive in southern Afghanistan, defense officials acknowledged Friday, proving the incident to be more serious than had been disclosed earlier.

A senior defense official also said that three Afghans, including the father and brother of the alleged attacker, were detained by the military. It was not clear if they were still in custody. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the other Marines and the British official were at Bastion Air Field waiting to greet Panetta, when an Afghan contractor hijacked a white Toyota SUV and tried to run down the Marines. The Afghan, who worked as an interpreter, had a lighter and a container of fuel in the vehicle which ignited. He was badly burned and later died.

Panetta’s C-17 military transport plane was taxiing toward the landing ramp when officials at the airport saw the smoke and the burning man, and directed the secretary’s plane to a different landing area, the senior defense official said.

The emerging details fuel speculation that the attacker may have been targeting Panetta or at least may have been aware that a VIP was about to land. It was not clear if the driver was intending to take his own life in a suicide attack.

What is clear, however, is that if the attacker had waited just a few more minutes, Panetta’s plane would have been at the ramp where the Marines were waiting and the car crashed.

U.S. defense officials have said repeatedly that Panetta was never in any danger, and that, at this point, they believe the attacker did not know who was on the plane.

The senior defense official said that the father and brother of the attacker are also interpreters, and that the third person taken into custody may also be one.

Gurganus and the other Marines in the welcoming party had to take evasive action to avoid the SUV racing at them, and security personnel doused the fire. The SUV was a military vehicle that had been reported stolen about a half hour before, the senior defense official said. A British soldier was injured when he was run over by the attacker shortly before the crash. Officials said he was in stable condition.

Astonishingly, Gurganus then told reporters that security in the Afghan south was fine, and that there have been no repercussions from the murder of 16 Afghan civilians at the hands of a US soldier:

Very shortly after Gurganus dodged the car, the commander spoke to reporters at Camp Leatherneck, which is adjacent to Bastion, a British air field. And despite repeated questions about security in the area, did not reveal the incident. Instead, he told reporters that there had been no violence in his area in the wake of the shooting spree by a U.S. soldier that killed 16 Afghans last weekend.

“We’ve had zero incidents,” Gurganus said. “We’ve not so much as even had a two man protest at this point in time.” He later added that, “You can’t get a whole lot safer than right here when you’re surrounded by everybody else on the base.”

Shortly after the incident, Gurganus disarmed a group of Marines waiting to hear Panetta speak. The Marines were disarmed because Afghan soldiers were not armed, Gurganus claimed.

Take a second to think about that. Gurganus and this staff had just been targeted in an assassination attempt by an Afghan national, an attack that resulted in the wounding of a British soldier. The major general’s solution was to disarm Marines so as not to offend Afghans. Given the circumstances, wouldn’t Gurganus want more, not fewer, armed Marines in his and Panetta’s company?

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Grant Weidman says:

    Gen. Gurganus did good by disarming the Marines. Its not that he didn’t want more armed personnel in the presence of the SECDEF, its because he wanted to limmit the number of fire arms all together. Who is to say an angry Afghan soldier would not try to take a Marines weapon and attempt to fire it? His idea I believe was to mitigate risk and I think he did just that.

  • Mr T says:

    That is kind of bizarre. Zero incidents he said. Zero? How about the running over of a soldier. This guys is either clueless or is not truthful. Both of those are bad. Sometimes I wonder about the people running this war. Do they really know what is going on?

  • aH, HUM…”Who is to say an angry Afghan soldier would not try to take a Marines weapon and attempt to fire it?” Hey, Weidman a room full of Armed 0311’s is a Risk Free Environment!

  • IraqVet says:

    I tend to agree with Weidman. Yes a room full of armed marines would be a deterrent, but these people (afghans) do not care about their own lives and all it would take is one shot from a gun snatched from a marine. Yes, the chances are low, but considering the recent events, it could have been a chance not worth taking. Im glad we are debating this instead of debating why they were not disarmed because someone got shot by an afghan…. Again.

  • wallbangr says:

    @James Roy III: “Hey, Weidman a room full of Armed 0311’s is a Risk Free Environment!”
    Uh, not really. That’s the insidious nature of suicide attackers. If he gets a jump on the SecDef it will be cold comfort that the Marines turned him into swiss cheese a nanosecond later. Not that the entire incident isn’t bizare and in need of some explanation. But Risk Free Environment is overstating the case.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    What is the level of confidence that the Afghans in the tent were actually unarmed?
    Honor system, metal detectors, pat down….?

  • NASEEM says:

    I think The did a great job to show some courtesy to the fellow Afghan Soldiers.

  • JRP says:

    As I said before in commenting on a related story, our own HVTs should be nowhere near the forward areas. And we should be very careful about who we invite over to the White House.
    We are working with so many supposed Afghan allies, who are really wavering on which way to turn. It’s like Cleopatra taking the asp to her bosom. The treachery displayed by the Taliban & AQ is and has been quite successful. We got lucky here. Reminds me of the luck we had with the underwear bomber over Detroit and the Times Square NYC bomber. Sooner or later the luck of one of our HVTs dispatched to Afghanistan to give a pep talk to the troops is going to run out and he or she is going to wind up dead, injured, or, worst of all, captured.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    I think disarming the marines was PC insanity. The story I read said they were made to put their weapons outside the tent. I don’t know what the security situation outside the tent was but, earlier some guy steals a truck and drives it on to a base where a VIP is landing. With thinking like this (unarming marines), it is no wonder the war has dragged on for 10 plus years. We’re lucky we’re not talking about the slaughter of unarmed marines.

  • Arlo says:

    Bizarre is the word for this whole situation.
    I have a hard time visualizing anything being snatched off a Marine. Suicide bomber or explosives hidden is a different story, even that a stretch considering the security that I assume would have been done in and around the building. With everything so PC it wouldn’t surprise me they told the guys not to do a security check for sake of it might offend an Afghan. This war gets more weird by the day.
    General Gerganus sounds like he needs some R&R or he is so far up the tops rear he can’t see daylight, either way this whole incident is just too strange.

  • Neo says:

    Disarming the Marines sounds a little knee jerk and reactive, but given the fact one of the Afghani interpreters had just cooked himself on the tarmac, I’d give the General a little leeway. They’ve got multiple investigations going on that impact on base security and troop morale. If the General isn’t 100 percent sure what’s going on around him than doing something overly cautious isn’t totally out of order. I’m guessing his security detail wasn’t having a good day at all. There’s nothing like wondering what the H is going on while you have a VIP under your watch.
    I’m not sure who the General was reassuring afterwards, maybe himself? Upon reflection is plausable that things didn’t settle so well with him?

  • Devin Leonard says:

    maybe they should have just had a few armed Marines stationed at strategic locationes to make sure nobody tried anything. A few armed Marines can go along way to making sure no one causes any trouble or tries anything dumb.

  • Gitmo-Joe says:

    This is why I always give the benefit of the doubt to Marine Corp generals. Initially the disarming sounded like some strange policy decision after the recent shooting. Now we find the general had just survived an assassination attempt on his own base while waiting to meet the sec defense.
    But what is really impressive is after surviving the assassination attempt he sticks to policy without missing a beat and says “no problem here”. This guy has guts.
    I am going to stick to my policy of not criticizing Marine Corp generals, no matter how bizarre the news may sound.

  • Cass McDonough says:

    >Take a second to think about that. Gurganus and this staff had just been targeted in an assassination attempt by an Afghan national, an attack that resulted in the wounding of a British soldier. The major general’s solution was to disarm Marines so as not to offend Afghans. Given the circumstances, wouldn’t Gurganus want more, not fewer, armed Marines in his and Panetta’s company?

  • Durani Abdul says:

    its stupid when you try to kill some one who is one of a high ranks comes to visit or to investigate high profile cases and study them for the exercise of legal action to find out whats wrong and bring the case to the courts for more verifications. its not the hero act to kill some one who is not involved into any issues but he tries to solve the problems. if US is hiring us as an interpreter we have the responsiblity to carry the meaningful job for the soldiers who are not terrain or with a culture of a foreign countries. we know if Taliban catch an american they will execute more severly the interpreter first and then american. so if you sacrifice your self for your enemy what does it mean? its really ridiculouos and stupid act of suiciders who will meet the 72 virgins into heaven. am really shocked to hear that and as interpreter loyalty and honesty will be the best service for the God.


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