Panetta talks of long, adapting war against ‘cancer’ of al Qaeda

While the war in Afghanistan might be drawing to a close, the end is not near in the U.S. war against al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.

In a speech at the Center for a New American Security, Panetta made the case that the U.S. has “decimated” the ranks of al Qaeda around the world, an argument Republicans have questioned in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya.

But as Panetta outlined the gains the United States has already made against the “cancer” of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, he said the fight was far from over.

“Even with these gains, the threat from al Qaeda has not been eliminated,” Panetta said. “We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has also metastasized to other parts of the global body.”

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During his speech, in which Panetta touched on his experiences both as Defense secretary and CIA director, he said that the U.S. will have to sustain and even deepen its engagement throughout the world, using military, intelligence, diplomatic and development efforts against the terror group.

Panetta asked what will it take to achieve “the end of al Qaeda, or at least the beginning of the end.”

As it’s been attacked, Panetta said, the terror group has shifted its tactics. He noted that the battle against al Qaeda will often be taken to areas outside of designated combat zones.

“The al Qaeda cancer has also adapted to this pressure by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed,” Panetta said. “The fight against al Qaeda has taken a new direction — one that demand we be especially adaptable and resilient as we continue the fight.

“Al Qaeda has long sought to operate in areas beyond the reach of effective security and governance,” he said. “We need to continue to pursue al Qaeda wherever they go, whatever form they take, wherever they seek to hide.”

Panetta stressed the importance of Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism, where 68,000 U.S. troops remain ahead of a planned 2014 transfer of security control to Afghan forces.

Panetta did not hint, however, at the drawdown plan between now and 2014 — the biggest question remaining about the U.S. military effort there. But he said that dismantling the Taliban in Afghanistan is “central” to the U.S. campaign to defeat al Qaeda, and reiterated the U.S. commitment to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

“All of this sends a very simple and powerful message to al Qaeda, to the Taliban and to the violent extremist groups who want to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan: We are not going anywhere,” Panetta said. “You cannot wait us out.”

Panetta also talked about the efforts to take on al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, as well as areas with a less established al Qaeda presence, such as Libya.

Panetta briefly discussed the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. He reiterated that the U.S. government will work with Libyan officials to bring the perpetrators to justice.

He also touched on what he said would “truly end the threat” from al Qaeda: stopping extremist ideologies from gaining traction. He said that the U.S. and its allies should focus on more than just military power, and also must use diplomacy, development and education in areas where violent extremism has flourished.

“These regions are undergoing an historic transition that offers many in the region hope for a better future, but these changes — unless influenced by the international community — could result in greater turmoil,” Panetta said.