Al-Qaeda, 9/11 and Strategic Defeat

Leon Panetta, who on July 1 took over as secretary of defense from Robert Gates, has hit the ground running. Today, in Baghdad on his first trip to Iraq since becoming SecDef, he linked the 9/11 attacks to the war in Iraq. Some reporters jumped on his statement, drawing comparisons to Bush-era arguments about the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Panetta clarified that he was not trying to justify the invasion, merely pointing out a fact: “I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion — or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with al-Qaeda here, they developed a presence here and that tied in.”

Panetta also called on Baghdad to take on militants and their Iranian backers. “In June, we lost a hell of a lot of Americans” thanks to Iran’s efforts, the secretary of defense commented. He noted as well that Washington’s presence in Iraq would be “enduring” for years to come, though he is a bit frustrated with how much time Baghdad is taking to let the Washington know if it wants U.S. troops to remain in country. “Do they want us to stay, don’t they want us to stay? Do they want to get a minister of defense or don’t they want to get a minister of defense?” Panetta said. In language much more colorful than that of his predecessor, he closed out with “Dammit, make a decision.”

The secretary of defense was in Iraq after spending the weekend in Afghanistan, where he spoke to the public for the first time since taking over for Gates. Panetta sat down with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and said that Washington is getting to close to “strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Going forward, he hopes to stay focused on that effort in conjunction with the CIA.

Meanwhile, General David Petraeus, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, is getting ready to head back to the States. He’ll step into the civilian sphere and take over for Panetta atop the CIA come September. He’s convinced that the successful completion of his plans to turn responsibility for security over to Afghan forces will be difficult, but “doable.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen is in China with a slew of security-related meetings scheduled. A Pentagon spokesman said the trip would be a continuation of the “engagement and dialogue that began during General Chen Bingde’s visit to the United States in May.” So far, definite progress is hard to come by. In a joint news conference, Admiral Mullen and General Chen talked about their countries’ dedication to one another and counterpiracy efforts, among other topics. But Chen also expressed Beijing’s unhappiness with long-simmering issues like the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the US and American naval exercises in or around the South China Sea.

The Middle East peace process hasn’t been in the news much since President Obama’s May speech on MENA. But today, the Quartet—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Catherine Ashton of the EU, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—is giving it another shot as the September UN General Assembly meeting looms. The Palestinians have voiced their intention to make a push for statehood at the conference. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said the Quartet would “compare notes about where we are and plot a course forward.”

Secretary Clinton said yesterday, a day after the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation, that negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan need to begin again. “Just as independence was not inevitable, neither is a lasting peace between Sudan and South Sudan,” Clinton commented, so both sides need to “quickly return to the negotiating table.”