KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in stable condition this morning after being shot by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a joint press conference on plans to reduce "green-on-blue" incidents. Though an initial press release from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) described Panetta's assailant as a "man in an Afghan President's uniform," those who witnessed the shooting live on CNN harbor few doubts that the shooter was actually Karzai.
The attack is the latest in a series of green-on-blue incidents, in which coalition forces are shot by their Afghan allies, making a total of 32 incidents in 2012 alone, with the year far from over. They have produced a total of 39 fatalities and numerous other injuries, in what the Pentagon has referred to as "a baffling pattern of freak accidents and misunderstandings."
According to reporters on the scene, Panetta was giving a speech on his continuing faith in the Karzai government's ability to end green-on-blue incidents, and the ability of the coalition to overcome the Taliban together and bring peace to Afghanistan.
He had just turned over the microphone to his "great friend, President Hamid Karzai."
Karzai stepped up to the podium and stared blankly for a few seconds at Panetta, who stood smiling broadly several feet away.
Then, without warning, Karzai suddenly produced a small revolver and opened fire on the Secretary, missing him three times, but hitting him once in his left arm and once in his left leg with subsequent shots. A sixth shot knocked Panetta's glasses off his face.
The revolver then clicked as Karzai pulled the trigger several more times before angrily throwing the empty pistol at Panetta, breaking his nose as he lay bleeding on the floor.
In the chaos that followed, Central Command head Gen. James Mattis rapidly confiscated the pistol, while ISAF commander General John Allen checked to make sure the Afghan president hadn't hurt his fingers while firing the weapon.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey checked Panetta's pulse and attempted to revive him.
"Is President Karzai alright?" groaned Panetta before passing out.
Panetta was promptly rushed to a hospital facility at Bagram Airfield in a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, which had to change course to avoid small arms fire from a friendly Afghan base. At Bagram, Panetta was transferred to an ambulance which took him directly to the base's trauma center, though it came under fire from Afghan National Security Forces no less than three times during the five minute drive, in one case from a group that was walking out of a base dining facility and had to stop to load their rifles.
Both groups of Afghans (one group was responsible for two of the incidents) later offered grudging apologies.
Regarding the motivation for the shooting, Karzai initially claimed it was due to "American insolence, ignorance of Afghan culture, Quran burning, violating Afghan traditions, or something else like that." He then called for the immediate withdrawal of coalition forces so Afghans could begin maintaining the country on their own "without western interference."
"We'll miss you," replied Mattis tersely, as he and Dempsey immediately started calling the Commander in Chief to plan a general withdrawal from the country. Karzai then rapidly backtracked, saying the attack was caused by "perhaps some confusion on my part, but that confusion was caused by an intelligence failure on the part of NATO."
As Mattis continued to dial without so much as an upward glance, Karzai threw a screaming, crying tantrum in which he swore he'd join the Taliban if he was not properly supported by his NATO backers. Following the threat to join the Taliban, Karzai's tirade trailed off, as he had noticed Mattis was glancing back and forth between him, a metal urn of scalding hot coffee on a nearby refreshment table, and Gen. Allen, who was looking Mattis directly in the eyes while emphatically shaking his head no.
At that point, Karzai changed his story yet again, and claimed that he had actually been handing the pistol to Panetta when he suffered a negligent discharge.
Following the incident, ISAF issued an apology, saying, "We are deeply sorry for any emotional trauma experienced by President Karzai, especially with regards to the loss of his personal sidearm, which has been in his family for generations."
Though most have interpreted the attack as confirmation of the ongoing degradation of NATO-Afghan relations and the deteriorating legitimacy of the Afghan government, some officials in the region, such as Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, see Karzai's actions in a more positive light.
"Right now we're hearing unprecedented levels of support for Karzai from Taliban officials and many low-level fighters who have previously refused to come to the table and deal with the Karzai government," Kayani said. "This could be the key to formal reconciliation efforts which could end the war."
He also expressed hopes that Karzai might pursue the gutsy strategy further with a larger gesture, such as formally putting the whole NATO effort under the command of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
An ISAF spokesman rejected Kayani's proposal as "utter nonsense", and was joined in a rare agreement by a Taliban spokesman who noted that "while a broken clock might be right twice a day, there is still no place for Hamid Karzai in an Afghan government that hopes to have any legitimacy with people at home or abroad."
Duffel Blog Investigative Reporter G-Had also contributed to this report.