Defeating al-Qaida Requires Continued Pressure, Panetta Says

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2011 — The oper­a­tion that killed al-Qai­da leader Osama bin Laden “has not only made clear to the world that we will do what we have to do, but it has also giv­en us the great­est chance since 9/11 to dis­rupt, dis­man­tle and to defeat al-Qai­da,” Leon E. Panet­ta said today dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing to become the next defense sec­re­tary.

“But to do that, to be able to fin­ish the job, we have got to keep our pres­sure up,” Panet­ta, the cur­rent CIA direc­tor, told the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “If con­firmed, my first tasks at DOD will be to ensure that we pre­vail in con­flicts that we are engaged in.”

Al-Qai­da has been weak­ened through the loss of its spir­i­tu­al leader, but still remains dan­ger­ous, Panet­ta told the Sen­ate pan­el. In addi­tion to its activ­i­ties in Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Iraq, he said, it is estab­lish­ing nodes in oth­er parts of the world, includ­ing Yemen and Soma­lia.

Panet­ta empha­sized that suc­cess is the only option in Afghanistan.

“If we lose in Afghanistan, we not only cre­ate anoth­er safe haven for al-Qai­da and for their mil­i­tant allies,” he said, “but I think the world becomes a much more threat­ened place because of that loss, par­tic­u­lar­ly in that region.”

The goal, he said, is to “try to devel­op a sta­ble enough Afghanistan that it will nev­er again become a safe haven for al-Qai­da or for oth­er ter­ror­ist groups.” It’s a mul­ti-pronged effort he said, and requires not only degrad­ing the Tal­iban and train­ing Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, but also strength­en­ing Afghan gov­ern­men­tal insti­tu­tions.

The coali­tion has made secu­ri­ty progress there, “albeit frag­ile and reversible,” Panet­ta told the com­mit­tee. He report­ed “good progress” in train­ing Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces, with 100,000 more Afghan sol­diers and police in place today than in Decem­ber 2009. In addi­tion, the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force train­ing mis­sion is ahead of sched­ule to meet its goal of 305,000 by this fall.

More progress is need­ed in the gov­er­nance area, Panet­ta acknowl­edged, so Afghan lead­ers can “take own­er­ship of their coun­try … [and] gov­ern and pro­tect their coun­try.”

Panet­ta said he sup­ports Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s tar­get to begin trans­fer­ring increas­ing secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces next month and to begin a draw­down of U.S. forces there. “I very much sup­port that deci­sion,” he said.

But when pressed, he declined to spec­i­fy exact­ly what he would rec­om­mend regard­ing troop num­bers and time­lines. Those deci­sions are best left at this point to Oba­ma, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, com­man­der of ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, he said.

“If I’m con­firmed, I’ll have to, obvi­ous­ly, arrive at a deci­sion myself that I’ll have to ulti­mate­ly present to the pres­i­dent,” Panet­ta said. “I’m not in that posi­tion now.”

As draw­down plans are made, Panet­ta said, he rec­og­nizes that that they poten­tial­ly could have to be adjust­ed. “This has to be a con­di­tions-based with­draw­al,” he said. “That means you look at the con­di­tions on the ground as it pro­ceeds.”

Suc­cess in Afghanistan, he acknowl­edged, hinges close­ly with events in Pak­istan. Panet­ta also empha­sized the impor­tance of the U.S. rela­tion­ship with Pak­istan, and their com­mon inter­est in con­fronting a com­mon ene­my that threat­ens them both.

“We can’t suc­ceed in Afghanistan if we’re not suc­ceed­ing in Pak­istan in terms of con­trol­ling the safe havens and the cross-bor­der oper­a­tions,” he said. “And so we’ve got to work at both in order to ensure that we’re able to stay on path with what we would like to achieve in Afghanistan.”

Panet­ta con­ced­ed that the U.S.-Pakistani rela­tion­ship has under­gone some strain. Com­pli­cat­ing it, he said, is the fact that the Pak­ista­nis main­tain rela­tion­ships with cer­tain ter­ror­ist groups, that they con­tin­ue to not take aggres­sive action with regard to these safe havens, and that their con­cern about the sov­er­eign­ty results in crit­i­cisms of the Unit­ed States.

In fact, Panet­ta said, he believes that “the ter­ror­ists in their coun­try are prob­a­bly the great­est threat to their sov­er­eign­ty.”

“The rela­tion­ship with Pak­istan is at the same time one of the most crit­i­cal and yet one of the most com­pli­cat­ed and frus­trat­ing rela­tion­ships that we have,” he said. But he empha­sized the need to work at it and approach it as a two-way street.

“We have to main­tain the rela­tion­ship,” he said. “We’ve got to do every­thing we can to try to strength­en that rela­tion­ship, so that both of us can work to defend both of our coun­tries.”

Turn­ing his atten­tion to Iraq, Panet­ta said the Unit­ed States must ensure that Iraqi mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty forces are pre­pared to safe­guard their nation so it can become a sta­ble democ­ra­cy in the region. He declined to rule out the idea of extend­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence there beyond Dec. 31, if asked by the Iraqis. Point­ing to the recent spate of vio­lent attacks there, he said a thou­sand al-Qai­da mem­bers still oper­ate there.

“It, too, con­tin­ues to be a frag­ile sit­u­a­tion,” he said of Iraq. “And I believe that we should take what­ev­er steps are nec­es­sary to make sure that we pro­tect what­ev­er progress we’ve made there.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter