Pentagon vs. Al Qaeda: Panetta hints at shifting US tactics

In a little-noticed policy speech, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Al Qaeda has been adapting to the US offensive against its leadership, requiring the Pentagon to adopt new tactics.

Rhona Wise/Reuters
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks during a change of command ceremony at the United States Southern Command in Doral, Florida, November 19.

In a little-noticed policy speech this week, America’s top defense official signaled a new direction for the Pentagon’s efforts in battling terrorism.

New tactics will include using more special operations forces and drones to conduct small strikes, as well as more partnership with foreign commandos. 

These are necessary in part because Al Qaeda has been quietly adapting to the growing US offensive against its leadership, senior US military officials warn.

“We have slowed the primary cancer,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told an audience Tuesday at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, referring to Al Qaeda. “But we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.” 

The result is that “the Al Qaeda cancer has also adapted to this pressure by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit, and geographically dispersed,” Mr. Panetta added. 

“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, to incite violence, and to sow instability.” 

This poses a challenge for top Pentagon officials, Panetta acknowledged. One of these will be figuring out how to help small nations fight terrorists on their own soil.

Panetta pointed to Libya, where “violent extremists and affiliates of Al Qaeda attacked and killed innocent Americans.” 

In doing so, he waded into the controversy surrounding the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. United Nations ambassador Susan Rice has come under sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers for saying in September that the administration had “decimated” Al Qaeda, saying that if that were the case, the consulate would not have been overrun.

Panetta for his part stressed in more specific terms that “Al Qaeda’s leadership ranks have been decimated.” 

This, he said, includes the killing of Al Qaeda’s five top leaders in the past two and a half years. 

Beyond the Benghazi controversy, Panetta said that the Pentagon will be particularly focused on completing the training of Afghan security forces in the nation where America has been at war for over a decade. 

US combat forces are scheduled to depart the country in 2014, but first they must “finish the job right,” he added.

This in turn will deter extremist forces from trying to once again find a foothold in Afghanistan and to send “a very simple and very powerful message to Al Qaeda, to the Taliban, to the violent extremist groups,” Panetta argued.

“We are not going anywhere,” he said. “Our commitment to Afghanistan is long term, and you cannot wait us out.”

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