WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2012 – For the United States and its alliesending the al-Qaida threat calls for a modified military footprint, close work with partners and continued U.S. involvement in regions of the world where violent extremism has flourished, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said tonight.
Addressing a large audience here at the Center for a New American Security, the secretary discussed significant national security challenges and opportunities ahead.
He also outlined priorities that characterize the approaching end of the longest period of sustained armed conflict in the nation’s history.
The priorities, Panetta said, are fighting the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates, ending the war in Afghanistan, implementing the new defense strategy, meeting fiscal responsibilities, countering nuclear proliferation, improving cybersecurity, achieving greater energy security, implementing the Asia-Pacific rebalance, and taking care of service members, veterans and military families.
“But tonight I wanted to focus on the goal that still remains at the top of the priority list, as it must. That goal that the president made very clear — that we have a responsibility to disrupt, degrade, dismantle and ultimately defeat those who attacked America on 9/11 — al-Qaida,” the secretary said.
“ … To protect Americans at home and overseas,” he added, “we need to continue to pursue al-Qaida wherever they go, whatever form they take, wherever they seek to hide. We must be constantly vigilant, we must be constantly determined to pursue this enemy.”
What will it take, he asked, to achieve the end of al-Qaida?
The essential first step is to finish the job that the United States and its coalition partners began in Afghanistan, he said, “and we are on track to do that.”
As the United States and its NATO partners agreed at the 2010 summit in Lisbon, Panetta said, Afghans must be responsible for their own security by the end of 2014.
This transition will require continued commitment by the international community and the United States to help Afghan forces achieve this goal, he added.
“We have come too far. We have invested too much blood and treasure not to finish the job,” the secretary said. “There are no shortcuts, nor can we afford to turn away from this effort when we are so close to achieving success and preventing al-Qaida from ever returning to this historic epicenter for violent extremism.”
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, prolonged military and intelligence operations have significantly weakened al-Qaida, Panetta said.
The terrorist group’s most effective leaders are gone, its command and control has been degraded and its safe haven is shrinking, he added, but al-Qaida remains.
“We have slowed the primary cancer but we know that the cancer has also metastasized to other parts of the global body,” the secretary said. Two examples of that spreading al-Qaida presence are Yemen and Somalia.
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