Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday said the United States must press forward toward its goal of fully eliminating a weakened al-Qaida, Reuters reported.
The United States has scored victories against al-Qaida branches in Somalia and Yemen, Panetta said. However, linked entities have increased their presence in Nigeria and Mali and are seeking to establish a presence in Libya, he added.
Washington has “decimated core al-Qaida,” in part by ending the lives of top operatives Osama bin Laden, Abu Yahya al-Libi and Sheik Saeed al-Masri, he said. Bin Laden, al-Libi and al-Masri respectively held the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 positions in al-Qaida’s Pakistan-based central command structure at varying points in time.
“These gains are real, but it is important to point out that even with these gains, the threat from al-Qaida has not been eliminated,” the Pentagon chief stated. “We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.”
The extremist group has grown more “widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed” in response to U.S. counterterrorism activities, he said. “The fight against al-Qaida has taken a new direction — one that demands that we be especially adaptable and resilient as we continue the fight.”
Despite plans to withdraw U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan into 2014 while shifting additional armed forces resources toward Asia, inhibiting and eventually vanquishing al-Qaida would continue to be primary goal for the United States, according to Panetta.
Preventing new extremist enclaves from taking root in Afghanistan would be critical to realizing “the end of al-Qaida,” he said.
“It will require continued commitment by the international community and the United States to help Afghan forces achieve it,” Panetta said. “We have come too far and invested too much blood and treasure” to leave the effort incomplete, he added.
Further U.S. action against al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen is also necessary, Panetta stated. He said cooperation between non-U.S. troops and U.S. special operations personnel would play a role in halting any effort by al-Qaida to find refuge in other regions.
“To truly end the threat from al-Qaida, military force aimed at killing our enemy alone will never be enough,” Panetta added. “The United States must stay involved and invested through diplomacy, development, education and trade in those regions of the world where violent extremism has flourished.”
Afghanistan, Pakistan and a number of African and Persian Gulf nations count among such areas, the Pentagon chief said.