U.S. forces have decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership and made gains against some of its affiliates, but the fight has shifted in new directions that will require persistent U.S. efforts to truly end the threat, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday.
Despite blows dealt to al-Qaeda, including the killing of its leader Osama bin Laden, “this is not a time for retrenchment and isolation. It is a time for renewed engagement and partnership,” Panetta said at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington think tank.
Panetta, in a speech to the Center for a New American Security, said military force will never be enough to wipe out the organization’s threat.
While the United States had achieved progress against al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, associated groups had made inroads in Mali and Nigeria and were trying to gain a foothold in Libya, he added.
“We must sustain and in some areas deepen our engagement in the world -- our military, intelligence, diplomatic and development efforts. And over time, we also must address the religious, economic, and cultural differences that create tension and are exploited by extremists,” he said.
Threats of massive U.S. government budget cuts, especially to the Pentagon, are major concern, Panetta said.
Yet “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,” he warned.
“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.”
The campaign against al-Qaeda “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,” Panetta said.
He said the key to achieving “the end of al-Qaeda” was to finish the job in Afghanistan in a way that ensured the group could never again establish safe havens there.