The Obama administration intends to expand the 11-year-old fight against al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Nov. 20. Above, Panetta speaks Nov. 16 during a joint news conference with Cambodian Minister of National Defense General Tea Banh at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Retreat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Saul Loeb / AP pool)
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The Obama administration intends to expand the 11-year-old fight against al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups. This expansion will include operations in and partnerships with new nations, as well as adding more U.S. commandos and drone aircraft.
That was the image sketched Tuesday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a speech in Washington in which he sent this muscular message to al-Qaida and Taliban leaders: "We are not going anywhere."
But his contentions that the Obama administration is committed to the long-term stability of Afghanistan, and that al-Qaida has been significantly weakened are at odds with views held by congressional Republicans.
"Counterterrorism will continue as a key mission for our professionals," Panetta said. "As long as violent extremists pose a threat, we have a responsibility to counter that threat."
The secretary of defense, expected to step down in the coming months, said Washington's fight against al-Qaida and its allies will soon reach new corners of the globe.
Panetta contends that the Obama administration's heavy reliance on special forces and drone strikes has substantially "degraded" al-Qaida's core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body," Panetta said vividly.
He pointed to Yemen and Somalia, saying al-Qaida franchises has sprung up in those nations and have plotted attacks on U.S. targets. But he also said "we have struck back" and "made good progress" in both nations.
The "al-Qaida cancer," as he dubbed it, is highly adaptable, meaning "we must be more adaptable and resilient."
"President Obama has made clear: We will fight not just through military means," Panetta said. He pointed to other tools of American power that have been and will be used against al-Qaida, including diplomatic, economic, law enforcement and other items.
And the Obama administration, he said, is prepared to take the fight to new places.
"This fight against al-Qaida will be out of traditional zones of war," Panetta said.
The U.S. has worked with nations where al-Qaida exists on "coordinated efforts" ranging from sharing intelligence to joint operations.
And there's no end in sight.
"We will expand these efforts," Panetta told a Center for a New American Security-sponsored forum in Washington.
While he did not name specific nations where America might take its terror war, he did mention "nations in transition" across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
"Wherever possible, we will work with partners to give them the resources they need," he said. "In support of these efforts, we must invest in the future [on] new military and intelligence capabilities. … As we decrease the size of the military, we will continue increasing the size of the special forces."
He also said the administration intends to continue buying more Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft that have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen to target al-Qaida leaders and operatives.
Panetta also touched on the administration's plans in Afghanistan, seeming to answer criticisms lobbed last week by Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain, R-Ariz.
McCain last week, during a SASC hearing, raised concerns about the Obama administration's plans for implementing its plan to remove most U.S. and NATO troops by the end of 2014. McCain said the operation is at a "strategic crossroads" amid a "perception of growing insecurity."
To McCain, Obama's focus on establishing a timeline to withdraw most Western forces is at the root of a resurgent Taliban/al-Qaida force, corruption inside the Afghan government, and "doubt … shared among our friends and enemies alike in Afghanistan and the region.
"This doubt has encouraged all actors in Afghanistan and the region to hedge their bets, which increases the worst instincts of the Afghan government and increases the chances of a return to civil conflict in our absence," McCain said.
The committee's top Republican described his "fear" that Obama will soon begin "implementing aggressive cuts to our forces in Afghanistan well before 2014 and then leaving a presence of supporting forces that is not equal to the tasks they need to perform."
But Panetta described anything but a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida. He said the core of both have been significantly weakened, with key leaders either "killed or captured."
The U.S. "remain determined to keep al-Qaida from launching an attack on America from safe havens inside Afghanistan," Panetta said.
He also touted the president's decision in late 2009 and early 2010 to "surge" 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
"Since the surge troops arrived … we have continued to [degrade] the Taliban," Panetta said.
And in a bold assessment, he said he believes Afghanistan "can secure and defend itself against that threat," referring to the return of the Taliban. He described a Taliban that has been "pushed out of population centers and key areas," adding NATO's casualties are down "30 percent this year."
The defense secretary said the war effort is on pace to have Afghan forces "in the lead across all parts of [their] country by mid-2013," and ready to "take responsibility for all security" by the late-2014 U.S./NATO withdrawal goal.
"All this sends a simple and powerful message to the Taliban, to al-Qaida, and to the violent extremist groups who want to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan: we are not going anywhere," Panetta said. "Our commitment to Afghanistan is long term — you cannot wait us out."