There once was a time, just last year, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta thought the U.S. was thisclose to wiping al-Qaeda off the face of the earth, once and for all. That appears to have gone up in the flames of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Now, a more dour Panetta believes that it’s not enough to continue the drone strikes and commando raids in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; they’ve got to expand “outside declared combat zones” to places like Nigeria, Mali and even Libya.
That was Panetta’s message at Tuesday evening address to the Center for American Security, an influential Washington defense think tank. Panetta, a former director of the CIA, gave a strong defense of counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids, calling them “the most precise campaign in the history of warfare,” and indicated strongly that they’re only going to intensify in the coming years.
“This campaign against al Qaeda will largely take place outside declared combat zones,” Panetta said in his prepared remarks, “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.” He referenced “expanding our fleet of Predator and Reaper” drones and beefing up Special Operations Forces by another 8,000 commandos in the next five years. Even if combat is ending for most conventional units, those forces — already frequently deployed — aren’t in for any respite.
For the past four years, drone strikes have battered tribal Pakistan and expanded into Yemen and Somalia. Without referring to the classified program specifically, Panetta credited them with killing al-Qaeda’s “most effective leaders.” But notably, Panetta isn’t talking anymore about killing another “10 to 20 key leaders” and declaring victory in the war on terror, as he did in 2011. The “cancer” of the terrorist network has “metastasized to other parts of the global body.” Talk of the Arab Spring demolishing al-Qaeda’s “narrative” has given way to fears that al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the fall of regional dictators “to gain new sanctuary, incite violence, and sow instability.”
So Panetta is back to describing a sprawling global campaign “in areas beyond the reach of effective security and governance.” The likely next targets are the Boko Haram Islamic militants in Nigeria; the extremists who appear in control of much of northern Mali; and, he said, “we are concerned about Libya,” as the September Benghazi attack crystallized that the country the U.S. thought it liberated from Muammar Gadhafi last year may now be a tinderbox for “violent extremists and affiliates of al-Qaeda,” to whom Panetta attributed the Benghazi attacks.
Panetta is still seeking “at least the ‘beginning of the end’” of al-Qaeda — though that itself is a downgrade of the optimism he expressed last year after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. But there the desired future borrows heavily from the tactics of the present. Panetta wants to effectively wrap up the U.S.’ major involvement in Afghanistan by 2014, while retaining a residual force to stop al-Qaeda from coming back. He wants to keep the drone-and-commando operations going in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and then he wants to expand the targeting to the newer, expanding al-Qaeda offshoots in northern Africa, working through regional security forces when possible. In Mali, for instance, he talked about using “partners in Western Africa,” rather than direct U.S. military action.
But often, those partners are supplement to U.S. strikes, not a replacement for them. Yemeni security forces, for instance, are under U.S. patronage, but drone strikes still hit the country. What begins as U.S. assistance to foreign militaries can draw the U.S. deeper into its own operations, as Panetta effectively conceded.
If all that makes the future of counterterrorism seem a lot like the present, Panetta didn’t envision any strategy to cut off al-Qaeda’s appeal once and for all. (Nor, for that matter, did he discuss the civilian toll his “precise” campaign has taken.) That’s vexed the U.S. for the past 11 years, to the point where it sponsors goodwill rap tours by American Muslim performers for want of better ideas. “We are still struggling to develop an effective approach to address the factors that attract young men and women to extremist ideologies,” Panetta conceded. Or, to borrow a phrase: Osama bin Laden is dead, but al-Qaeda is very much alive.