In a sobering message for Americans to take to their Thanksgiving tables, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday said that despite the 11 years of fighting since 9/11, the U.S. still faces a long counterterrorism war against the spreading “cancer” of al Qaeda, and he warned there are “no shortcuts” to exiting Afghanistan before 2014.
Three weeks after President Obama’s reelection, and with support for the war plummeting, Panetta recommitted to NATO's timeline for ending combat in Afghanistan and transitioning security to local forces by the end of 2014.
But the secretary was notably silent on the pace of the U.S. troop drawdown, which is perhaps the central question surrounding the recommendations of outgoing war commander Gen. John Allen, who has told the White House how many troops and what kinds of troops he thinks should remain in Afghanistan for the next two years. There are currently 68,000 troops there, following the removal of 33,000 surge troops before October. Obama pledged this summer to continue a “steady” drawdown through 2014, but White House and Defense officials are deliberating over Allen’s recommendations, and the president is expected to make a decision, several defense officials tell the E-Ring, by the first half of December.
Panetta’s remarks came in a keynote speech on counterterrorism he delivered to the Center for a New American Security, the Washington think tank that has supplied several key policy officials to President Obama’s Pentagon team. The speech was originally scheduled for October 29, the day Hurricane Sandy swept through the region.
In the address, Panetta argued the U.S. has beaten back the al Qaeda operation that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and held Taliban fighters at bay.
"All this sends a simple and powerful message to the Taliban, to al Qaeda, and to the violent extremist groups who want to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan: we are not going anywhere; our commitment to Afghanistan is long-term; you cannot wait us out," he said. Those comments address criticism by Republicans like Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has argued against announcing a drawdown timeline and wants all 68,000 U.S. troops held in place through 2014.
Panetta also noted that outside of Afghanistan are many places, including Pakistan, which he argued will require constant monitoring against becoming breeding grounds for terrorists. "We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body."
Despite that metaphor, he claimed that the advances made by al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have been "largely reversed.” But, he added, "Our work in Yemen is far from done. Dismantling AQAP and eliminating it as a threat to the United States will ultimately require sustained pressure, more U.S. training and assistance, close partnership with the Yemeni government and people, and steadfast support for the political transition."
As if to say even that might not be enough, Panetta continued, "But the al Qaeda cancer has also adapted to this pressure by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit, and geographically dispersed. The fight against al Qaeda has taken a new direction -- one that demands that we be especially adaptable and resilient as we continue the fight."
To that end, Panetta asked Congress to settle the budget dispute, and the former CIA director argued the U.S. must invest in "new military and intelligence capabilities and security partnerships," citing the continued expansion of special operations forces and praising the use of drones.
With a nod to strains on the defense budget, and perhaps the lack of public will for U.S. engagement in combat abroad, Panetta also called for more investment in diplomacy and development to prevent people from wanting to become terrorists in the first place.
"If we turn away from these critical regions of the world, we risk undoing the significant gains they have made. That would make us all less safe over the long-term. This is not a time for retrenchment and isolation. It is a time for renewed engagement and partnership."
One partnership left undetermined: the White House's partnership with Panetta. The secretary remained silent on just how long he plans to lead the Pentagon in the next Obama administration.