Sunday, July 10, 2011

Deception and Winning - Only "10-20 key AQ leaders left Globally"-Panetta

Percival (R) and staff stroll to the surrender table in the midday sun
Moments away from the fall of Singapore in 1942, Lt Gen. Yamashita order his artillery to continue their high rate of fire despite the fact they only had enough ammo for a few more hours of shelling. Having completely underestimated their enemy for many months if not years, the numerically superior allied forces on the island collapsed before the Japanese arty ran dry.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he believes the United States “is within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida.” Is Panetta underestimating his enemy on a scale similar to Percival? Or is AQ just as close to defeat as Yamashita's numerically inferior boys back in 42?

Panetta said that globally there are only 10 to 20 key al-Qaida leaders remain on the battlefield and "and tracking them down would mean the defeat of the terror organization." The AFPS continues

“If we can be successful in going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack on this country,” the secretary said to press traveling with him. “It’s within reach. Is it going to take more work? You bet it is.”
“We have undermined their ability to conduct 9-11-type attacks,” he said. “We have them on the run. Now is the moment, following what happened to [Osama] bin Laden to put maximum pressure on them, because I do believe if we continue this effort we can cripple al-Qaida as a threat. Panetta said al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is most likely in hiding in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area.
General Petraeus continues 
there has been enormous damage -- well beyond the killing of Osama bin Laden -- done to al-Qaida in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.... There may be elements of al-Qaida out there for some time, the ‘brand’ so to speak, but they will not be able to plan and execute strategic attacks.
These statements are rejected by renowned terrorism scholar, Bruce Hoffman, of Georgetown University quoted in the Post.
Al-Qaeda’s obituary has been written countless times over the past decade. Each iteration has proved to be ephemeral, as the moment has continually shown itself to have a deeper bench than we imagine.

While Hoffman is right to be cautious, MIL INT would counter that Panetta is a deeply political Washington insider. Why would he set himself up for failure by establishing a benchmark of this kind if he didn't have good evidence under pinning the statement. Sure, he has to down size the military and so rhetorically he might choose to down play the threat, but an IO move of that kind would not be so unequivocal. Mind you, MIL INT felt the same way about Bush's State of the Union on African uranium or the now famous 16 words, implying Saddam was working towards nukes - which turned out to be complete baloney. It used to be the case that Presidential statements of that kind had great gravitas and signaled the possession of knowledge that was just not possible to share with the world but nevertheless was a game changer. Bush 42 did a great deal to undermine that trust with those 16 words once the truth came out.

Back in 2009 then National security adviser Gen James Jones (USMC Rtd) counted 100 key AQ leaders. The number is now 10-20. The strategic intelligence marriage to SOF and drone assets has paid significant dividends if the numbers are credible.

While the numbers were global in Panetta's case, the rise in violence in Pakistan and the choice of strategic targets in that country, suggest that MIL INT's argument that Pakistan is a far greater prize than Afghanistan is not only well founded but that the 10-20 do not include those who seek to take Pakistan down. Moreover, as MIL INT has also argued for some time the temptation to adopt a more robust approach to Yemen might grow give the threat against the US Homeland has come from Yemen in recent years.

“There’s no question that if you look at what constitutes the biggest threat in terms of attacks on the United States right now, a lot of that comes from Yemen,” Panetta said. 
The current small footprint CT strategy that got bin Laden is and will continue to be the best approach in Yemen. The situation is much more complex now there because of its internal dynamics but a major ground commitment by the US would be a category 1 mistake. MIL INT's best guess is Panetta will be too cluey to fall for that trap.

All of this raises the question - is AQ deceiving us, are we deceiving ourselves, or is this really the beginning of the end? If as sophisticated an operator as Panetta sets himself up for a fall on such a Shakespearean scale, then he may well come to be compared to Percival for under estimating his enemy.

Photo credit: wikipedia

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