Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that any gains made in the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan could be threatened by a failure to counter the terror organization’s attempts to spread influence in North Africa and other unstable regions.
In an address to the Center for a New American Security, Panetta stuck to policy points and did not mention the David Petraeus sex scandal that has roiled the Defense Department, or the “Ethics Review” he has ordered up for the flag ranks in the military.
Panetta diverted briefly to lavish praise on Michele Flournoy, who introduced him at the Willard Hotel event and who has been much-mentioned as a possible successor if Panetta goes ahead with his intention to retire early next year.
“Michele is an outstanding strategic thinker and public servant,” Panetta said of Flournoy, a former undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
Panetta cited major progress by the U.S. military in 11 years of war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but “our challenge is far from over.”
“Yes, we have decimated core al-Qaida and yes, we have made notable progress against its associated forces in Yemen and Somalia,” Panetta said. “But the al-Qaida cancer has also adapted to this pressure by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed.”
“We know that al-Qaida, its affiliates and adherents are looking to establish a foothold in other countries in the Middle East and North and West Africa -- including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Boko Haram group in Nigeria” as well as al-Qaida affiliates in northern Mali, Panetta said.
Panetta singled out Libya, “where violent extremists and affiliates of al-Qaida attacked and killed innocent Americans in Benghazi. With respect to that attack, let me be clear: We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice those who perpetrated these attacks.”
The U.S. was prepared to go after al-Qaida elements with increased use of special forces and drones, Panetta said, but the U.S. must also address the root causes of terrorism. Panetta called on Congress and the White House “to develop an effective approach to address the factors that attract young men and women to extremist ideologies, and to ensure that governments and societies have the capacity and the will to counter and reject violent extremism.”
“To truly end the threat from al-Qaida, military force aimed at killing our enemy alone will never be enough,” Panetta said. “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.”
“I frankly worry that our political system will prevent us from making the investments in diplomacy and development that we need to ensure” against al-Qaida’s spread, Panetta said about the looming “fiscal cliff” the nation faces and the prospect of major defense cuts under the sequestration process.
“If we turn away from these critical regions of the world, we risk undoing the significant gains they (the troops) have made,” Panetta said. “That would make us all less safe over the long term.”