WASHINGTON: Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said despite challenges in the bilateral relationship, the United States and Pakistan share an interest in defeating terrorists and that Washington would pursue defense cooperation with Islamabad on that common basis.
Speaking at a Washington think tank, Panetta noted that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, prolonged military and intelligence operations have significantly weakened al Qaeda but saw the need to maintain pressure on the group.
That means degrading the terrorists' senior leadership, dismantling their organisational capabilities, remaining vigilant to ensure the threat does not reconstitute, and working to build the capacity of US partners, including Pakistan, to confront these shared threats, he added.
“Despite challenges in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan”, Panetta said, “one area in which our national interests continue to align is defeating the terrorists on Pakistan soil that threaten both of us”.
“We remain committed to pursuing defence cooperation based on these shared interest”, he said at the Center for a New American Security.
Panetta pledged continued US engagement with Pakistan and a sustained commitment to Afghanistan in the years ahead. He acknowledged the fact that al Qaeda linked militants eye northeastern Afghan areas of Kunar and Nooristan as a viable haven.
He also claimed that in many ways success in Afghanistan is linked to Pakistan eliminating militant hideouts on its side of the Afghan border.
The Afghans, he said, will be in the lead throughout the country for security in mid 2013.
“Afghans will ultimately full responsibility for security by the end of 2014.
After 2014, the United States has made clear through a strategic partnership agreement, that we will maintain an enduring presence, and a long-term commitment to Afghan security.
And Nato made a similar commitment to a post 2014 Afghanistan at the Chicago summit last May.
“All of this sends a very simple, and a very 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.
Our commitment to Afghanistan is long term, and you cannot wait us out.
This is important, because al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other associated forces under pressure in Pakistan, continue to view the rugged terrain of northeastern Afghanistan, especially Kunar and Nuristan provinces, as a viable safe haven.
A relentless, and effective counterterrorism effort, conducted by our Special Operations Forces this year, made clear that we will not allow them to regain that sanctuary”.
The defence secretary said the US must prevent the emergence of new safe havens for al Qaeda elsewhere in the world that could be used to attack the United States, or its interests.
He hinted at widening the war against al Qaeda.
“The last decade of war has shown that coordinated efforts to share intelligence, to conduct operations with partners, are critical to making sure that al Qaeda has no place to hide.
We will expand these efforts, including through support and partnership with governments in transition in the Middle East and North Africa”.
This campaign against al Qaeda will largely take place outside declared combat zones, using a small footprint approach, that includes precision operations, partnered activities with foreign special forces operations, and capacity building so that partner countries can be more effective in combating terrorism on their own, he said.
“Wherever possible, we will work through, and with local partners, supporting them with the intelligence and resources they need in order to deter these common threats”.
He said the US has to invest in new military and intelligence capabilities, and security partnerships.
“Our new defense strategy makes clear that the military must retain, and even build new counterterrorism capabilities for the future.
As we reduce the size of the military, we are going to continue to ramp up special operations forces, which have doubled in size from 37,000 on 9/11, to 64,000 today.
Special operations forces will grow to 72,000 by 2017.
We are expanding our fleet of Predator and Reaper UAVs, over what we have today.
These enhanced capabilities will enable us to be more flexible, and agile against a threat that has grown more diffuse”.
At the same time, Panetta called for an effective approach to addressing the factors that attract young men and women to extreme ideologies, and to ensure that governments and societies have the capacity, and the will to counter, and reject violent extremism.
“To truly end the threat from al Qaeda, military force aimed at killing our enemy alone will never be enough.
The United States must stay involved and invested through diplomacy, through development, through education, through trade in those regions of the world where violent extremism has flourished”.