Dignified transfer

The body of Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II of Gardenville is carried off a military plane Monday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / February 27, 2012)

As violent protests continued in Afghanistan over the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book by NATO forces, the Pentagon confirmed Monday that a Maryland National Guard major was one of two U.S. military officers shot to death inside a ministry building in the heart of the Afghan capital over the weekend.

Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II, 48, a longtime physical-education teacher in the Baltimore County public schools, had been working since September as a mentor to the Afghan National Police, part of the NATO partnering mission at the center of U.S. strategy in the country. It was his first deployment to Afghanistan.

"We never thought this would happen," Ian Marchanti, his 18-year-old son, said Monday at the family home in Gardenville. "Things seemed pretty calm. We would get worried once in a while, but we thought he was safe."

Afghan officials say they have launched a nationwide search for a suspect in the attack Saturday at the supposedly secure Interior Ministry offices in Kabul. The shootings came days after the burning of Qurans at a military base in Bagram last week ignited violent protests that continue to rage.

The unrest, which included a suicide bomb attack Monday that left nine dead at a military airport in eastern Afghanistan, has cast further doubt over the viability of the U.S. mission there. On Thursday, an Afghan soldier shot and killed two American troops outside a U.S. base in Nangarhar province, and about three dozen Afghans have died in protests in the past week.

More than a decade into the war, the United States had shifted its focus to training Afghan security forces to protect the country's embattled central government after most foreign troops leave in 2014.

But Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has recalled personnel from Afghan ministries. Officials have described the move as temporary, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker has said the United States remains committed to the country.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Major Marchanti's congressman, said it remains unclear whether the shootings were connected to the disposal of copies of the Quran in a burning trash pit at Bagram.

The Baltimore County Democrat, a member of the House intelligence and armed services committess, described events of the past week as "a very difficult situation."

"We're very aggressively attempting to train the Afghan military and security forces," said Mr. Ruppersberger. "With this situation, we might have to go into more depth on those individuals that we're working with and helping to train."

Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, met with Major Marchanti's unit during a trip to Afghanistan around the new year.

"They were doing very well, all proud to serve the nation," he said.

General Adkins spoke after attending a meeting in Washington on Monday among governors, state National Guard leaders, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other Pentagon officials.

"I think we were all on a path to reducing our forces in Afghanistan by 2014," he said. "The real question is going to be answered by those in Washington — and I don't think there is an answer yet — but what will be our plan. The situation is evolving quickly and is providing numerous challenges. …

"Our job back here is to make sure we're prepared to go, to answer the call when the president and the Department of Defense ask us to serve."

Major Marchanti and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis were working Saturday afternoon in a small room at the National Police Coordination Center when the gunman entered the room, officials said.

Workers elsewhere at the Interior Ministry heard two gunshots. They entered to find Major Marchanti and Colonel Loftis, each with a single gunshot wound to the head.

Their efforts to revive the officers were unsuccessful.

Major Marchanti, who was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division Security Partnering Team II, was the fourth Maryland Guard member to be killed in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and the 12th to die in the war on terror.