by Charles Strathdee
Naval Special Operations forces have played a leading role since the 9-11 attacks on the USA in combating Al-Qaeda, from the landlocked mountains of Afghanistan to the coast of Somalia.
To US Navy SEALs went the distinction of flying deep into Pakistan to raid the compound where Osama bin-Laden was hiding out, killing the terrorist leader and then transporting his body to the carrier USS Carl Vinson, from where it was buried at sea.
Yet, despite all those efforts, and those of sister US services and the forces of allies, the battle to finally defeat Al-Qaeda is far from won. Two top American defence officials have in recent weeks issued rallying calls for the fight to be renewed across the world.
US Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta gave a speech to the Center for a New American Security in which he posed the question: “What will it take to achieve the end of Al-Qaeda?” The Secretary later explained the current state of play like this: “We have slowed the primary cancer but we know that the cancer has also metastasised to other parts of the global body.”
Above all the USA recognises that it needs to engage in a multi-layered, multi-faceted fight to eradicate the terrorism cancer wherever it next appears, whether in Yemen or Africa. “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,” Panetta said. “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 operations forces, and capacity building so that partner countries can be more effective in combating terrorism on their own.”
Whatever happens next, Panetta feels it would be fatal for the USA to withdraw into itself and put up the barricades. He feels adopting isolationism “would make all of us less safe in the long-term. This is not a time for retrenchment. This is not a time for isolation. It is a time for renewed engagement and partnership in the world.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in England the Pentagon’s top legal expert Jeh C. Johnson told the Oxford Union that “the core of Al-Qaeda is today degraded, disorganised and on the run.” Osama bin-Laden is dead while “those left in Al-Qaeda’s core struggle to communicate, issue orders, and recruit.”
Despite all this the group remains a serious threat and it is not easy to see how the conflict will end. “It is an unconventional conflict, against an unconventional enemy, and will not end in conventional terms,” Johnson declared.
He suggested there would never be a formal surrender ceremony such as that held aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay at the end of WW2. “We cannot and should not expect Al-Qaeda and its associated forces to all surrender, all lay down their weapons in an open field or to sign a peace treaty with us,” said Johnson. “They are terrorist organisations. Nor can we expect to capture or kill every last terrorist who claims an affiliation with Al-Qaeda.”
The primary aim, he felt is to prevent the terrorists from obtaining their “radical and absurd goals” that include dominating the globe via imposition of a violent caliphate. “There is no compromise or political bargain that can be struck with those who pursue such aims,” said Johnson.
The Pentagon’s general counsel, as he is titled, can, however, envisage a tipping point when the degradation to Al-Qaeda’s leadership, organisation and hard-core cadre of terrorists will be such that there is no chance of a major attack on the USA.
“At that point,” said Johnson, “we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an ‘armed conflict’ against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates; rather, a counter-terrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of Al-Qaeda.”
During a counter-terrorism sweep in Iraq a team of US Marines enters a suspected hideout. The USMC will continue to be at the forefront of American military operations worldwide, including the fight against Al-Qaeda.
• This article is published in the forthcoming January 2013 edition.