By Sandra I. Erwin
The United States is war weary, and a big budget ax hangs over the Pentagon. But the nation’s military should not let domestic politics and economic concerns distract it from the fight against al-Qaida, said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Echoing themes of the Bush-era “global war on terrorism,” Panetta cautioned that the Defense Department must remain on a war footing and ready to launch future campaigns against terrorist groups around the world that are planning to attack the United States.
Political gridlock on Capitol Hill and uncertainty about future Pentagon spending are, indeed, serious problems, said Panetta. But a more important priority, he stressed, is to defeat al-Qaida.
“To protect Americans at home and overseas, we need to continue to pursue al-Qaida wherever they go, whatever form they take, wherever they seek to hide,” Panetta said Nov. 20. at a forum in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Center for a New American Security.
The Arab Spring has created a window of opportunity for al-Qaida and its offshoots to expand their presence, Panetta said. “After being left on the sidelines of the momentous change that swept through the Arab world last year, they are now seeking to take advantage of the transition period to gain new sanctuary, incite violence and sow instability.”
The most significant battle against al-Qaida, however, is the one that began in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Panetta said. After 11 years of war, the group’s leadership remains entrenched there, although its ranks have been weakened, he said. “Even with these gains [by U.S. forces in Afghanistan], the threat from al Qaeda has not been eliminated,” Panetta said. “We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.”
Panetta called for the United States to “finish the job” in Afghanistan by ensuring Afghan security forces are properly trained and ready to take over when U.S. combat troops depart in 2014.
The war against al-Qaida also will continue to be waged in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, said Panetta.
“We must prevent the emergence of new safe havens for al-Qaida elsewhere,” he said. “We will expand these efforts through support and partnership with governments in transition in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The war on terrorism in the coming years, unlike that of the past decade, will not feature massive deployments of ground forces, he said. The fight against al-Qaida “will largely take place outside declared combat zones, using a small-footprint approach that includes precision operations, partnered activities with foreign special operations forces, and capacity building so that partner countries can be more effective in combating terrorism on their own.”
The nation’s financial troubles might require steep cuts in Pentagon spending over the coming decade, Panetta noted. But the Defense Department will continue to fund counterterrorism programs and invest in areas such as special operations forces and armed drones. “As we reduce the size of the military, we are continuing to ramp up special operations forces, which have doubled in size from 37,000 on 9/11 to 64,000 today,” he said. SOF will grow to 72,000 by 2017. “We are expanding our fleet of Predator and Reaper unmanned air vehicles over what we have today.”
Special operations raids and drone strikes are not enough, he said. The U.S. military will need to train foreign troops so they can combat al-Qaida without American intervention. Soft-power tools, such as diplomacy and outreach, also are needed, he said.
“Over the past decade, we have successfully directed our military and intelligence capabilities at fighting terrorism. Yet we are still struggling to develop an effective approach to address the factors that attract young men and women to extremist ideologies,” he said. “Military force aimed at killing our enemy alone will never be enough. The United States must stay involved and invested through diplomacy, development, education and trade in those regions of the world where violent extremism has flourished.”
Panetta fears, however, that there is little support in Congress for soft-power initiatives. “I frankly worry that our political system will prevent us from making the investments in diplomacy and development that we need to ensure we protect America’s interests in these volatile regions of the world.” These programs, he said, “lack a constituency in Congress.”
Photo Credit: Defense Department