There once was a time, just last year, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta thought the U.S. was thisclose to wiping al-Qaida off the face of the earth, once and for all. That appears to have gone up in the flames of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Now, a more dour Panetta believes that it’s not enough to continue the drone strikes and commando raids in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; they’ve got to expand “outside declared combat zones” to places like Nigeria, Mali and even Libya.
That was Panetta’s message at Tuesday evening address to the Center for American Security, an influential Washington defense think tank. Panetta, a former director of the CIA, gave a strong defense of counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids, calling them “the most precise campaign in the history of warfare,” and indicated strongly that they’re only going to intensify in the coming years.
“This campaign against al Qaeda will largely take place outside declared combat zones,” Panetta said in his prepared remarks, “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.” He referenced “expanding our fleet of Predator and Reaper” drones and beefing up Special Operations Forces by another 8,000 commandos in the next five years. Even if combat is ending for most conventional units, those forces — already frequently deployed — aren’t in for any respite.