US Marines disarmed for SecDef visit to Helmand

The New York Times reports that US Marines at Camp Leatherneck who were waiting in a tent for US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to speak were ordered to disarm:

In a sign of the nervousness surrounding Mr. Panetta’s trip, the Marines and other troops who were waiting in a tent for the defense secretary to speak were abruptly asked by their commander to get up, place their weapons — M-16 and M-4 automatic rifles and 9-mm pistols — outside the tent and then return unarmed. The commander, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall, told reporters he was acting on orders from superiors.

“All I know is, I was told to get the weapons out,” he said. Asked why, he replied, “Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust.”

Normally, American forces in Afghanistan keep their weapons with them when the defense secretary visits and speaks to them. The Afghans in the tent waiting for Mr. Panetta were not armed to begin with, as is typical.

Later, American officials said that the top commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, had decided on Tuesday that no one would be armed while Mr. Panetta spoke to them, but the word did not reach those in charge in the tent until shortly before Mr. Panetta was due to arrive.

General Gurganus told reporters later that he wanted a consistent policy for everyone in the tent. “You’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” he said. He insisted that his decision had nothing to do with the shooting on Sunday. “This is not a big deal,” he said.

Whatever the reason was for this decision, it was wrong. If Major General Gurganus was concerned about offending Afghan sensibilities, then he failed to consider how this would be perceived by his own Marines (and that would be poorly, I can assure you). If indeed someone was “itchy,” as Sergeant Major Hall initially said, about US troops being armed in the presence of their own Secretary of Defense, then Gurganus just told his Marines they cannot be trusted.

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

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.



  • Neo says:

    Time for the “let’s not make this worse than it is” speech.

  • Stuart says:

    The Commandant should call GurgAnus on the carpet for this act of treachery against his Marines. You are absolutely correct that the message sent and received was that he does not trust his Marines. If he does not trust them, how can they trust him. He needs to be fired on the grounds that his ability to command is now in question.

  • blert says:

    All of this would have been a Panetta’s personal request.
    All these decades he’s been fixated upon trimming back — massively — the DoD budget.
    That’s his claim to fame.
    It has to be: He’s on the scene to figure out just how fast America can get out of the box 0bama’s got us in.
    We’re fighting a land war in Asia — and it’s with Pakistan.
    It’s interesting to note that 0bama fingered Pakistan as THE problem as far back as 2007.
    Islamabad didn’t like his comments.
    I’d say that NATO and America have decided it’s high time to wrap up the Pygmalion project and terminate ‘nation-building.’
    Pakistan simply will not permit the ISAF to succeed.
    Even if we should, amazingly, sweep the battlespace — Islamabad would merely reignite their occupation the second we walked out the door.
    Islamabad frames every event in Afghanistan as a proxy war with India. On current trends, Pakistan is going to be left in the dust, economically, as India out grows Pakistan.

  • JRP says:

    Gurganus may have received some last minute classified intelligence tip; he should get the benefit of the doubt. Make no mistake about it, the greatest strength the Taliban/AQ have is their ability to penetrate security. They are masters at infiltration via donning the uniforms of others. The real question is why would we send very important people to forward areas where their lives may be at risk? If we cannot afford to lose Panetta, then we should not be sending him over there. Nor should we be inviting these Afghan big shots to the White House. These people are beyond treachery. Remember FOB Chapman and the wipeout of an entire CIA team.

  • Michael Clifford says:

    This is absolutely disgusting that a Marine general officer would disarm his troop in the name of political correctness. I don’t care what his past history is this was unacceptable. Al Gray, Chesty Puller, Lew Walt would never have even entertained the idea of disarming Marines to make some other military feel good about themselves.
    I agree Gen. Amos needs to call this guy in and explain a few things to him.

  • mike merlo says:

    God bless the concealed weapon

  • Devin Leonard says:

    I see no reason why the Marines should have been disarmed…the Afghans, yes…but not the regular Marines.

  • Reader says:

    When you don’t trust your own…
    “It’s all over”…except the excuses and lies, that are sure to follow.
    “Honor” has more value than appearance and promotion.
    Full stop !
    It seems those in power are blind by both and personal gain.
    God help (U.S. all) and the (disarmed) warriors.
    Civi & MIL “Power” screwed the a “BIG” way..this time.
    This ain’t fixable!
    History….really does repeat itself.

  • villiger says:

    Disgraceful. But, I’m not surprised. Just a couple of days ago, i made the point to another commenter that Obama struggled to get to Afghanistan to visit the troops.
    While his claim was that the US is winning the war 80-85% (I’d like to see the calculations), I asked him the question “How secure are you, really?”
    I bet somebody like Panetta sleeps with drugs at night. I don’t mean to get personal, but it is important to understand that the world is in our mind. And the mind and brain are easily corruptible. Thats probably, or obviously, is what happened to the sergeant who went on a killing spree. As another commenter said elsewhere i especially feel for his wife, kids and family.

  • villiger says:

    “It’s interesting to note that 0bama fingered Pakistan as THE problem as far back as 2007.”
    Blert, with respect, you didn’t have to be Einstein to figure that out. Still, credit to him if he really did. Point is what did he do about it? What is the result?

  • E. says:

    JRP has a good point.
    Major General Charles M. Gurganus has earned trust beyond popular beliefs.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Didn’t the same thing happen in the Balkans in the 90s?
    Hope someone was watching the weapons. Did the Marines get to keep their knives?

  • Spooky says:

    Would have simply been better not to have Panetta address the Marines and Afghans in person, because it isn’t a good message to send your own troops to disarm them, but neither is it good to show blatant distrust toward Afghans (y’all who hollar about it all being evil political correctness can continue to do so all you want, but there is a such thing as showing proper respect or at the very least not give reason to piss these guys off even more, it’s called being astute, and it works far better than shooting onesself in the foot for the sake of some interpretation of honor), so really the meeting itself should have just been done differently.

  • Neonmeat says:

    I can just see no reason for this. As Bill states Afghan troops are usually disarmed anyway so I don’t know what offence could be taken by them as this is the regular state of affairs. It just seems bizarre. On a larger note I would ask why is ISAF and particularly America continually losing the propaganda war to AQ with these silly PR mistakes? These men embody the fighting spirit and you disarm them in front of the man they are basically fighting for! This is just one of those things that seriously damages moral, it just annoys me I can’t imagine how a Marine would feel: ‘This is my rifle…..’
    @ Villiger
    Re. what did Obama do?
    He has violated Pakistans sovereignty Multiple times, he sent Seals to kill Bin Laden, a massive stealth incursion that the Paks didn’t even know about until afterwards. Drones strikes are still on going, he has done no less and I would argue more than Bush has in the war on Terror. What else can he do when dealing with this duplicitious state of Pakistan. Another war is certainly not answer.

  • Nolan says:

    These boys won’t forget this BS order….well maybe they will after they hit deployment 7 or 8…..
    No more tours! Wrap this thing up now and bring the boys home to their families.
    This is asinine.

  • gitmo-joe says:

    It would be nice if we could all stop slamming Panetta, Obama, Gurganus, and everybody else. We have a lot of patriotic guys at each others throats here. Lets show some unity.
    The situation is this: We are in a cesspool. Lets stop trying to blame each other for who made it stink. All cesspools stink, no matter who is in the game. Afgahanistan stinks. Always has, always will. Lets get out and let the place decend into hell. Whatever the consequences are for us, Im sure it will be less humiliating for America than this asinine situation.

  • gwb says:

    If the lousy bureaucrats would stay the hell out of the way of the fighting men and women this wouldn’t have been a problem. This was political appeasement plain and simple, and I’m not surprised considering the past unnecessary apologies that this administration has made “on behalf of our nation”. Politicians suck.

  • Villiger says:

    Come, come Neonmeat, everybody and his aunt knows that the drone-attacks take place with Pakistan’s concurrence. By no stretch of imagination is that a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty!
    “What else can he do when dealing with this duplicitious state of Pakistan.”
    1. He could’ve given the US forces the full whack of the surge troops requested rather than half the no. (See Bill Ardolino’s article on RC East).
    2. Avoided announcing prematurely to the enemy the 2011 drawdown timeline which he declared right at the outset. Which also gave Pakistan completely the wrong signal.
    3. Squeezed Pakistan on its dole-out.
    4. More Special Ops with real incursion into Pak’s sovereignty, especially hitting the Haqqani network. (Grant you OBL but sorry it wasn’t a ‘massive’ operation given the scale of this war.)
    5. Isolated Pakistan on its nuclear arsenal including at the UN.
    6. Stirred the pot in Baluchistan and perhaps even land there and cut it off–far from militarily impossible. And yes war involves certain risks but then isn’t the US supposed to be the toughest Army in the world? (It took India less than 2weeks to take East Pakistan and 93,000 POWs.
    You go to war to win, not to end up negotiating with barbarian murderers, in which case its better to stay at home and keep your hands in your pockets.

  • Mr. Wolf says:

    Precautions. When you have 3 weapons on your side, and two hands, a knife in the throat and a pistol discharge are just what could be called for by the Taliban. It doesn’t have to be a success to be a success. With the stolen car on the landing strip and intel being processed, a little less lead means a little less red. It would be interesting to watch the Afghan troops as the Americans were walked out. Which one had the disappointed or “deer in headlights” look?
    To the troops – keep up the hunt! Flushing rabbits takes teamwork.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Did Panetta have an armed security detail?
    How unusual was it for the marines to be without their weapons?
    I’m assuming the marines always have their weapons while in Afghanistan. It must have seemed strange to the marines.

  • Setrak says:

    Don’t see why anyone has to assume it was Panetta. Could have been one of his aides, or even the good General himself. Could have been an intelligence tip. We don’t know. Someone screwed up and some guys were asked to disarm. Was it dumb? Almost without a doubt, but who’s at fault? Who knows. I don’t understand why some commentors are instantly jumping to conclusions.
    “Posted by villiger at March 14, 2012 8:18 PM ET:
    It’s interesting to note that 0bama fingered Pakistan as THE problem as far back as 2007.”
    Blert, with respect, you didn’t have to be Einstein to figure that out. Still, credit to him if he really did. Point is what did he do about it? What is the result?”
    For those of us with short memories, then-candidate Barack Obama was being attacked by Senator John McCain( ) and then-President George W. Bush( ) in 2008 for openly-favoring an aggressive policy regarding Waziristan/aQC. Their sum of their attack was Obama wants to “bomb our ally”.

  • Gitmo-Joe says:

    Have to give credit where credit is due. Obama signed off on a lot of fantastic high visibility missions that are beginning to restore that aura of invincibility America had after Desert Storm;
    -We knew the OBL mission would infuriate Pakistan and we did anyway.
    -We freed our hostages on the high seas with 3 head shots for 3 pirates .
    -We bailed out NATO by taking out the Lybian armor. In & out in 48 hours.
    -We killed Alawi in Yemen even though he was a U.S. citizen.
    -We rescued hostages in Somalia killing 9 prirates.
    All great calls. But Afghanistan is going to end badly and there is nothing Obama or anyone else can do about it. We need to be smart and we need to be honest. With Iran and Pakistan interfering, our own breakdowns in discipline, the bizarre Afghan culture and a whole lot of other negative factors there is just no way this is going to be okay. Twenty years years and a trillion dollars wouldn’t matter. It just delays the inevitable. The longer we stay the more it hurts us.
    This place is not worth one more U.S. soldier’s life.
    This place is not worth one more U.S. taxpayers dollar.

  • Nic says:

    Just two talking points: First, how easy would it be for an Afghan to grab a marine’s gun given the configuration of the people in the meeting room? Secondly, remember the incident with the Afghan grabbing a truck and driving it towards Panetta’s plane? The must have shaken a few people into “Any thing can happen in this crazy ass county” mode and thus the overkill on security.

  • megapotamus says:

    For those who council, Benefit of the doubt, I’m not sure what doubt there is to be benefited from. This decision has to fall on Panetta or if not Panetta, Obama. The Afghans are disarmed for good damn reasons. Does no one recall the murders of two officers at their desks last week? So the hook for this can only be the massacre of Afghans, right? Is there any calculation that admits SecDef could be less than safe in front of assembled troops but can still prosecute a war with them? Enough is enough. Clearly Obama wed himself to Afghanistan for no other reason than to prevent the label of pacifist laid on him. He doesn’t believe in this theater and probably does not believe in GWOT at all, even as a law enforcement operation. I’ve never thought much of anyone laying down their lives for the country, rather they are asked to take managed and mitigated risks for identifiable goals. Laying down arms is equivalent to the former proposition. No. Enough. Pull out. Pull out today. Straight to hell with our so-called allies there. Better our allies and enemies set on each other, if that is their intent but I don’t think it is. Pull out. If the “good” Afghans are beheaded, well, we can’t be responsible. Further issues should be addressed with punitive retaliation. If that doesn’t work and we don’t want to convert, and we don’t, then god help every rabbit and stone in that blighted land.

  • Neo says:

    Double the surge. Squeeze Pakistan on the doleout. Go to the UN on Pakistan’s Nukes. Lots of special ops running around Pakistan. Start some major action in Baluchistan.
    You’re an ambitious man. I would say it involves certain risks too.

  • Vyom25 says:

    I totally agree with Villiger. I mean I don’t understand how can you negotiate with someone like Taliban. Why do you negotiate? for your safety, for your children’s safety or something else which is beyond my reasons?

  • Villiger says:

    Well spotted! Its called WAR!

  • villiger says:

    Gitmo Joe
    “Obama signed off on a lot of fantastic high visibility missions that are beginning to restore that aura of invincibility America had after Desert Storm”
    Lets just take a walk in the neighborhood:
    You have 180m people in Pakistan who have beaten you and are laughing at you. You have another 1.2billion people in India who have thrashed Pakistan numerous times and are astonished to see you struggle and make a dog’s breakfast out of it. You have another 140m people in Russia who are saying we told you so but you learn from your own mistakes not others. You have another 1.4billion people in China, who is your primary banker saying move over. I heard Iran saying smart move, stop talking war. And as for the Afghan people, I really do wonder what they’re thinking.
    And you talk about an aura of invincibility! You’ll excuse me but i’m no clairvoyant reading auras.

  • NASEEM says:

    What ever the Genral did was a right thing to do, he is in a position to make that decsion. he had a knowldge of local culture and as i said in my other comments that he showed courtesy to theire Afhan fellow soldiers.
    the madia just make a big deal of some really small thing. i will just throw this out if you are man enough and come and join the military to see how it looks like.
    be a man enough to support the military or stand infront of them.

  • Neo says:

    Not sure of who you are addressing. I didn’t say anything about negotiations with the Taliban, which I believe to be futile. I have resigned myself to the idea that in the long term the effort at nation building in Afghanistan is not going to be a success. I also think the current high level of military support is not financially sustainable. I do think we have successfully kept al Qaeda and associated extremists from launching mass attacks against us, and might well continue to do so well past 2015. I also think in large degree we have suppressed Islamist ambitions in Central Asia. As a bonus Pakistan has not been able to sustain its efforts into Kashmir during this fight either.
    I never have thought it is in the United States interest to directly come into conflict with Pakistan over this. I feel it would make things much worse rather than solve any difficulties we are having with them. I don’t believe we have made new enemies out of the Pakistani’s during this war. Those that count themselves among our enemies did so long before 9/11.
    So what to do? Negotiations are a farce, I agree. The Taliban will attach at the first opportunity after the bulk of American troops leave. You can resist them or you can mail it in and wait whatever fate has in store for you.
    Mr. Villager wants to vastly expand the war, something neither the Democratic or Republican parties in the United States will sign on to.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I served in the military, and I think the decision was horribly wrong. As does every soldier and Marine I have spoken to thus far. I am sure there are some who disagree; I can respect that. Let’s not play the silly “I served and you didn’t” game to grant legitimacy to our opinions.

  • Norman Michaud says:

    I served as a Navy Corpsman with the Marines for 12 years, 30 years ago, as part of that service, Marines and Corpsman were taught “This my rifle, there are many like it, but this one is mine”. You love your weapon, you sleep with your weapon, it is your friend, like no other, you are with your weapon at all times. This is wrong.

  • Gitmo-Joe says:

    What you say is true. A lot of people are laughing at our situation and saying I told you so. But we can’t let pride and ego effect our decision making. We have to make our decisions based on the strategic facts and what is best for America in the coming decade. Wish I had a better answer but I think we have to take one on the chin. There is nothing anybody can do with this place to “win” (short of killing everybody and paving the country over).
    Bush senior was a great man, combat verteran, CIA director, ambassador, commander in chief. His son was not. We have to deal with it. I think 5 – 8 years ago more resources was the answer. But we did the opposite and diverted to Iraq. The dynamics of the battle change over time, windows of opportunity open and close. At this point I don’t think more resources will help. Now we are disarming our own troops to keep their sec defense safe. The is just too bizarre. Talk about people laughing at us!
    I do think it healthy for us all to think back on our absolutely spectacular string of successful missions outside of Afghanistan. That is who we really are.

  • John Browning says:

    This shouldn’t come as a surprise, based on “The Secretary’s” background on the gun control issue? Surprised he doesn’t rearm the Marine’s with wild flowers and potpourri instead of their M-4’s and M-9’s?

  • Villiger says:

    I see your perspective and i am in complete concurrence. Also i appreciate your maturity, humility and graciousness inherent in your response. These are important elements in society and especially important in time of war so that the ‘good’ side maintains greater unity and its easier to isolate the ‘bad’ guys. I speak to that across borders and globally and put patriotism aside.
    As i see it, one has to admire Bill, for the tone he sets even while blogging about serious conflicts and the associated contentions. And he’s maintained it pretty consistently which is one important reason as to why his site is THE place to visit on this extremely difficult and emotive subject.
    Its a pleasure to engage in this dialogue with you. As for the future, que sera sera. America might yet sort out the region, working more from a distance, hopefully including with smarter diplomacy than we have seen and hopefully incorporating more key global players, China, Russia as well as regional ones, India and Iran.
    As they say, see ya around.

  • Villiger says:

    “Mr. Villager wants to vastly expand the war, something neither the Democratic or Republican parties in the United States will sign on to.”
    Mr Neo, there’s message for you in my response to Gitmo-Joe, which you no doubt would’ve read. Be clear, my ‘wants’ are not as you outlined above. My original comment, addressed to Neonmeat, was crystal clear and in the perspective of Neonmeat’s question. That response was phrased in the PAST-TENSE of things Obama could’ve done. Let me refer you back:
    “What else can he do when dealing with this duplicitious state of Pakistan.”
    1. He could’ve given the US forces the full whack of the surge troops requested rather than half the no. (See Bill Ardolino’s article on RC East).
    etc., etc.
    Read more:
    Further, Vyom had perfectly understood what i had said. Therefore, i don’t need you to interpret my comments to others and i will appreciate it if you do not cross-wires in my dialogue with others here.
    And fyi the name is V.I.L.L.I.G.E.R. There is no A in it, and i’m not sure how you can know the correctness of the title ‘Mr.’. Frankly, i would prefer it if you don’t address me at all further. Kindly respect that.

  • Devin Leonard says:

    Villiger- This idea of yours that America has been beat by Pakistan or the Taliban or anyone else… is laughable. We have decimated Al Qaida and the Taliban to the tune of over 25,000 kills. Obama invaded Pakistani territory and aced Bin Laden. We killed tens of thousands of insurgents and Al Qaida in Iraq. I served three tours in Iraq and Three in Afghanistan as a Force Recon Marine and a Spec Ops Marine, and I know the details. Our “Aura of invicibility” IMHO has never left us. My view that we are winning by 80-85% is based on the analysys of how much territory we have deprived the enemy of, and how many successfull ops we carry out on a day to day basis. It also comes from independent observers like General Barry McCaffrey of NBC and others who are experts in war and have said as much. Every nation on this planet knows that the American military is the best trained and most lethal ever fielded in history…Iraq and Afghanistan have not changed that fact.

  • Villiger says:

    Devin i thought we had agreed to disagree since we’ve had this conversation before!
    But if you want to pursue, i still ask you: pray tell me how many miles/kms of Afghan roads does ISAF/ANSF control 24/7 and what percentage is that of total territory?
    Btw Devin what did your General Barry McCaffrey have to say on the main story here “US Marines disarmed for SecDef visit to Helmand”? So i ask how secure are you/we really?
    Repeat, my independent expert here is Bill Roggio. When i hear him call a win, i shall most likely accede.
    If you’re saying ISAF has made gains since 2001. of course they have. But, ” that we are winning by 80-85% is based on the analysys of how much territory we have deprived the enemy of, and how many successfull ops we carry out on a day to day basis.” is too waffly for me. Show me the factors of the “how many”–i’d like to see the calculations and your equations. I’m a scientist and a mathematician.
    Finally let me just remind you that life is a great leveller–you run a big risk when you start believing in your own invincibility. If you’re picking up the phrase from Gitmo-Joe, you will note we have already settled that with great humility. Take a cue.

  • villiger says:

    Devin, just an afterthought.
    If i should grant you that ISAF is winning 85%, and so if you are that close, why don’t you finish the job and take it to 100%?

  • Robert Haaga says:

    As an former Marine I would not have gone back into the tent, screw him.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram