Panetta touts new Latin America strategy

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to spend the next week touting the department's new strategic plan for Latin America during a series of meetings with key American allies in the region.

Initial stops on the trip include visits with top military and political leaders in Peru and Uruguay, before Panetta heads to a key summit of defense chiefs at the annual Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas, according to DOD Press Secretary George Little.

"The emphasis of those discussions will be on strengthening partnerships and working with other [Latin American] nations to build their capacity to contribute to regional and international security efforts," Little told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Panetta will outline the United States' new strategic vision for the region, known as the "Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement," during those discussions, Little said.

That strategy is rooted in establishing new military cooperation pacts with regional powers in South and Central America, while enhancing existing agreements with key U.S. allies in the Americas.

That cooperation runs the gamut from U.S. support for ongoing counternarcotics programs in the region to exploring options on joint security operations in Afghanistan, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region.

"Because of our mutual interests . . . related to [the] freedom, security and awareness in the maritime and air domains . . .we will continue to identify opportunities for collaboration to develop partnerships that extend beyond our hemisphere," according to the policy statement.

"This approach not only strengthens U.S. partnerships in our hemisphere, but also enhances the relevance of those partnerships in supporting U.S. global priorities," the new DOD strategy states.

While ambitious in scope, the department is emphasizing "innovative, low-cost, small-footprint approaches" to meet the goals outlined in the new strategy, Little said Thursday.

The Pentagon began laying the groundwork for this less-evasive engagement in Latin America in the White House's post-Afghanistan defense strategy back in February.

U.S. special operations forces and counterinsurgency (COIN) specialists returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will begin ramping up operations across the globe, particularly in South America and Africa, according to the administration's plan.

These small bands of special forces and COIN experts will lean upon "innovative methods" learned in Southwest Asia to expand American influence in those two continents, Panetta said at the time.

The methods include increasing rotations of small special operations units into Latin America, bolstering military-to-military training with local forces and supporting those troops with U.S. weapons and equipment.

That approach breaks from the intensive, "long-term" counterinsurgency campaigns American troops carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in February.

In March, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey announced U.S. troops will begin deploying to Colombia to assist Colombian-led joint task forces in the country.

At those outposts, American combat commanders will help train their Colombian counterparts on the finer points of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.

At the time, Dempsey stressed that U.S. troops will only advise and assist local military forces and not actively participate in any combat operations in the country.

The Pentagon has similar U.S.- run task forces operating in the Horn of Africa, the Trans-Sahara, Southern Philippines and elsewhere around the world.

While the American strategy for Central and South America has evolved, so has the nature of threats to U.S. interests in the region.

Iran, as well as terror groups backed by Tehran, have been steadily expanding their influence in South and Central America.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited the region six times over the past six years.

Tehran has also expanded its network of embassies and cultural centers in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua during that time.

Hamas and Hezbollah have also leveraged their connections to narco-traffickers and other transnational crime syndicates in the region to raise money for future terror operations, U.S. commanders told Congress in March.

“We do see evidence of international terrorist groups benefitting from ... illicit trafficking and money laundering” in South America, Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. forces in the region, said during a March 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Tehran's efforts to expand its circle of influence in South America was tantamount to exporting state-sponsored terrorism into the region, according to Panetta.

"We always have a concern about in particular the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and [their] efforts . . . to expand their influence not only throughout the Middle East but into [South America] as well," Panetta said in March.

"That, in my book, relates to expanding terrorism. And that's one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about," he added.