Leon Panetta is an old Chicago pol. He came of political age as a cog in the oldest, longest running, smoothest operating machine in the US--the Cook County Democratic Party. As such, he knows well the primary duty of a machine man--loyalty to the Boss. By definition the Boss is the Nice Young Man From Chicago, Barack Obama.
Only the overarching requirement of loyalty could have impelled the new Secretary of Defense as he moved from his old job of DCIA to announce that the defeat of al-Qaeda was "within reach." Only days later Mr Panetta demonstrated the requisite degree of doublethink when he thundered against the possibility of doubling the 400 billion dollar cut in the next decade's defense budget under the debt ceiling increase deal.
Given that the American participation in the Great Adventure in Regime Change in Iraq is in its death throws and the rush to the exit has started in Afghanistan, the new SecDef is perfectly well aware that the costs of war will go down as well which will allow for significant decreases in the Pentagon expenditures without a single real cut in procurement or force size. And, if his statement regarding the impending end of al-Qaeda is taken at face value, the need for the large security establishment created in the immediate wake of 9/11 and the consequent decisions of George W. Bush evaporates as well. If al-Qaeda does well and truly turn its collective toes to the sky, the need for mountains of money marked "For the Pentagon" goes away.
Presumably, the end of al-Qaeda would allow the US to return to the (relatively) lower levels of defense appropriations which characterized the days prior to 9/11. In that case, Panetta should quit his bitchin' and find a few additional programs to cut so as to please his Boss properly.
Of course, the Panetta Dictum regarding the morbidity of al-Qaeda like the rumors of Mark Twain's death is greatly exaggerated. Al-Qaeda is not dead. It is not on some sort of Islamic life support. It is not even gravely ill.
The real deal of which Leon the Loyal must be completely aware considering his previous job as well as his daily access to the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (as well as the Presidential Intelligence Brief) is that al-Qaeda has morphed. It has changed profoundly from its original form. Most critically, it is far more of a threat in its current incarnation than it was in the Bad Old Days.
In the far distant Eocene of 2001, al-Qaeda was a small, hierarchical organization with a tight command and control system. It was dependent upon Osama bin Laden as inspiration, decision maker, leader, and chief fund raiser. None of this obtains today. Nor has it obtained for some time. Long before bin Laden went to Paradise, the "Base" had fissioned, decentralized, become far more of an idea than an institution.
Just as American doctrine and tactics changed under the stresses of real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so also have the operational concepts and organizational methods of the al-Qaeda predicated practitioners of violent political Islam. Arguably, the Mighty Men of the Koran have changed more radically and more effectively than have the armed forces of the US.
The most obvious feature of the new, improved "al-Qaeda" is the spawning of franchises. Both al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are obvious spin-offs or imitators of the famed original. "Allied" groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia may not use the old brand name but exist as self-conscious copies of Osama's group. It is a brute fact that AQAP has become a larger threat to the civilized states than the ragged band of drone pressed fugitives headed by al-Zawihiri lurking in either the stone huts of the FATA or living in relative comfort in anonymous houses in some sprawling Pakistani city.
The far more important change in the universe of violent political Islam is the transformation of the old al-Qaeda brand into a metaphysical idea. This coupled with the elevation of bin Laden from a jihadi ideal to the Perfect Martyred Warrior of the Prophet has provided the intellectual substrate for the emergence of powerfully motivated "lone wolf" terrorists.
In this context it is important to recall that war, all war, exists first as an idea. It matters not in the least what type of war or what level of intensity, war is first and foremost an intellectual construct. The now dead or captured theorists of Islamist martyrdom operations along with bin Laden have provided a basic set of ideas which define asymmetrical warfare from the point of view of the advocate of violent political Islam. These ideas have been enlarged, filled out, and spread by the assorted jihadist websites as well as videotaped sermons (and hectoring) by Muslim clerics. Many of these Men of the Islamic Cloth are quite unknown in the West. Others, most notably Anwar al-Awlacki, are nearly household names throughout the civilized states.
Self-radicalization facilitated by the web and the arguments of clerics great and small, well known and unknown alike has become the major feature of the current version of al-Qaeda. Individuals or very small groups of self-radicalized adherents of violent political Islam represent a very real threat to the civilized states as well as a quite meaningful challenge to security and law enforcement agencies. The several high profile arrests of wannabe "martyrs," the spectacular failures of the Underwear Bomber and the Times Square Bomber, or the quick police follow-up on the alert gun shop clerk in Kileen, Texas do not militate against the reality of the jihadist threat or the thinness of the margin between tragedy and tragedy narrowly averted.
Of course, crowd sourced terror does not exist alone. In addition to the ideological support provided by the memes originating with al-Qaeda 1.0 and the effective tools of self-radicalization and not completely irrelevant instruction in the practical considerations of waging one man wars on the West, there exist potent and growing al-Qaeda facsimiles. AQAP has been acknowledged properly as the single largest threat. AQIM is growing. Rapidly.
The senior French investigative judge holding the counterterrorism brief has issued a reassuring nostrum to the effect that AQIM does not represent a threat to Europe. This pronouncement is rather like patting the hoi polloi gently and telling them not to worry their pretty little (empty) heads about terrorism, that the adults in the government know better. In this way M.Marc Trevidic echoed Panetta's declaration of al-Qaeda's impending death. Feel good words which belie the substance of reality.
AQIM has extended its reach to Nigeria. Kidnapping Europeans. This is an expansion of their reach with the view to forcing changes in European policy. In short, it is terror of the violent political Islamic sort. Operations in Nigeria taken in conjunction with the local Islamist group would have been unthinkable a year ago. Now, the action shows a growing potential to strike Europeans if not Europe. There is every reason to believe that by this time next year AQIM will rival AQAP as a threat to the West generally.
Al-Shabaab may have evacuated Mogadishu, but that is not a sign of its defeat regardless of what the imitation government of Somalia may say. Rather, the real potential of al-Shabaab was demonstrated by its set of highly lethal attacks in Uganda last year. Al-Shabaab has tight links with AQAP as well as a ready source of English speaking recruits in Somali refugee communities in the US. It is one more rapidly growing threat.
Of his two contradictory statements, Panetta was much closer to the truth when he warned against overly dramatic cuts in the Pentagon budge. He must know that ten years from now the US will be engaged heavily even if not with conventional forces on the ground. He must be aware perfectly that the war against the advocates of violent political Islam will be ongoing in 2022 as it is today. Probably on a larger scale geographically.
Panetta may be a good machine politician, but he is also an American. Doublethink like loyalty to a misguided Boss has its limits. When push comes to shove as it must in the next few months, it is likely that the Secretary of Defense will fight with all the political skills he possesses to assure the the US has the means necessary to continue the fight against the forces of violent political Islam until the civilized states finally win.
Leon Panetta came a very long way during his years as DCI. That was a surprise to any and all who have personal acquaintanceship with the mindset of typical Chicago pols. It has been obvious that Panetta has learned that there is a wide and dark world out there, that the limits of Cook County are not the limits of the US, that the interests of the machine are transcended by the interests of the US. If a bit of experience can manufacture that level of miraculous transformation, it is not impossible that a few months running the Pentagon and talking more and more often with commanders responsible for the lives of those under them will carry the transformation to the next step--a Leon Panetta who is willing and ready to drop his Boss's water bucket in the higher cause of the country as a whole.