Today's date:
Summer 2009

AFPAK Drone Strikes Are Only Game in Town

Leon Panetta is the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency. He took a break from touring California's high-tech satellite and missile plants to sit down with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels and other members of the Pacific Council on International Policy on Monday, May 18.

NPQ | In early May you visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn him not to attack Iran's nuclear facilities without consulting with the United States, which is trying to engage Iran diplomatically. Do you feel assured that Netanyahu will not attack Iran?

Leon Panetta | Yes. The Israelis are obviously concerned about Iran and focused on it. But he understands that if Israel goes it alone, it will mean big trouble. He knows that for the sake of Israeli security, they have to work together with others.

NPQ | What are the CIA's priorities under the Obama administration?

Panetta | Counterterrorism is the CIA's primary mission. Al-Qaida remains the most serious security threat to America and to our allies overseas.

Their leaders in Pakistan continue to plot against us. Their affiliates and followers in Iraq, north and east Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula continue to work to develop plans that threaten this country and our ability to survive. The CIA's primary objective is, therefore, to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida. That is the mission.

Serious pressures have been brought to bear on al-Qaida's leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas. There is ample evidence that our strategy is in fact working. We do not expect to let up on that strategy. I'm convinced that our efforts are seriously disrupting every operation that al-Qaida is trying to conduct; it is interfering with their ability to establish plans to come at this country.

One measure of our success is that al-Qaida is seeking shelter elsewhere. One of the dangers we confront is the fact that, as we disrupt their operations in Pakistan, they will seek other safe havens. Today, Somalia and Yemen are potential safe havens for al-Qaida in the future.

As crucial as disrupting the senior leadership based in Pakistan is, we know it alone will not eliminate the danger. For that reason, our goal is to pursue al-Qaida to every hiding place and work for their destruction, including in the present war zones.

As the US draws down on the military side in Iraq, we will increase our intelligence presence there to help Iraq establish stability. The threat there is not only of terrorism but also of resurgent sectarianism. Al-Qaida has lately moved principally to the area of Mosul, where we are now focusing.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency is spreading. In a country with weak political institutions and a failed economy, stabilizing the situation requires not only a military surge but an intelligence surge as well. Hard as well as soft power—civilian aid and assistance—must be applied if we are going to have a chance to create stability.

The threat posed by Iran has our full attention. Iran is a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Even though the administration is moving toward diplomatic engagement with that country, no one is naive about the challenges. Iran aspires to be the pre-eminent power in the area through its nuclear program, through its meddling in Iraq, through its relations with Syria and through its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

The judgment of the US intelligence community is that Iran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons. It is our judgment that Iran halted weaponization in 2003, but it continues to develop uranium enrichment technology and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Assessing Iran's intentions is, therefore, a top priority. It is not an easy intelligence target. Our main focus is getting an accurate picture of its capabilities.

While the Iranian nuclear program in and of itself is cause for significant concern, there is also a real risk that if Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will be tempted to follow suit. The last thing we need in the Middle East is a nuclear arms race.

Similarly, we are trying to assess North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and its long-range missile capabilities. The fact that it will sell technology and expertise to anyone willing to pay is a very serious concern. Like Iran, North Korea is a tough intelligence target, but we are making good progress.

Especially given Kim Jong-il's health problems and issues of succession, North Korea remains one of the most difficult and unpredictable threats in that part of the world.

Finally, there are many in the US Congress today who want to focus on the past (on what happened during the Bush administration). I don't deny the importance of learning the lessons of that period. And as someone who was a member of the US Congress for eight terms, I believe in the oversight role and power of the legislative branch. But in looking at past practices, we have to be very careful we don't forget our responsibilities to the present and the future. We are a nation at war.

We have to confront that reality every day. We cannot therefore examine the past in a way that becomes so politically divisive that it interferes with our capabilities to stay focused on those who would threaten the US today and tomorrow.

What I will say is that, for now and the future, whatever the CIA does it will do so in a way that upholds the Constitution and values that America stands for. I deeply believe, as President Obama does, that we do not have to make a choice between our values and our safety. Our responsibility is not only to protect our shores but to protect a government of, by and for the people.

NPQ | You say the CIA strategy against al-Qaida and its allies is working in the Pakistan-Afghan border region. Yet, critics, such as David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency expert who advised Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, say the strikes by remote drones in the tribal zones have only killed 14 terrorist leaders, while more than 700 civilians have been killed. Isn't this stimulating more anti-Americanism across Pakistan than disrupting al-Qaida?

Panetta | These are covert, secret operations. So I can't go into particulars. Suffice it to say that the operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of hitting targets with a minimum of collateral damage.

Sometimes critics sweep casualties from other less-precise operations, for example, f-16 jet strikes, that go into these areas and can cause significant collateral damage. In discussing this, I sometimes find that the numbers are mixed together. But I assure you that in terms of our strategy, it is very precise and very limited in terms of collateral damage. And, very frankly, it is the only game in town in terms of trying to disrupt the al-Qaida leadership.

NPQ | When he was president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf said that Pakistan's nuclear assets were more secure than those in the former Soviet Union. Are you satisfied that Pakistan's nukes are safe?

Panetta | With respect to Pakistan's nuclear weapons, we do try to understand where these are located. We don't, frankly, have intelligence about where they are all located. But right now we are confident that the Pakistanis have a pretty secure approach to try to protect these weapons. This is something we will continue to watch very closely.

Obviously, the last thing we want is to for the Taliban someday to have access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

NPQ | Is disrupting al-Qaida's networks enough to establish stability along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?

Panetta | We cannot win by military means alone. If we are going to develop long-term stability in either Pakistan or Afghanistan, we are going to have to engage the tribal areas. Clearly, what happens is that al-Qaida and their allies feed upon the frustration of people there who feel that they have no opportunity. In the end, it is about education, about food, about personal security.

The reason the Taliban has been successful in the tribal areas is that they go to the people where there is a lot of disruption and say, "We can provide order." That is what hurts us the most. We have to be able to answer people's search for order and security. We can only win if we provide security, jobs, education, sanitation and infrastructure. The surge in Iraq would not have worked if it had not been complemented by NGOs, the State Department, civilian groups and other aid focused on these other aspects.

We have to learn those lessons and apply them in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

NPQ | What does the whole Swat episode tell you about how the Pakistani leadership thinks about the threat of al-Qaida and the Taliban?

Panetta | One of the challenges we face in confronting al-Qaida, the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan is making the leaders of Pakistan understand that these groups represent a threat to the stability of their own country.

In Pakistan, the primary focus has always been on the threat from India, not on the tribal zones. Whether it was the British Empire or the succession of Pakistani governments after independence, they both treated the tribal areas like Indian reservations in the US. Basically, they left them alone. If they raised hell, you sent the cavalry in to deal with the problem and then left without paying further attention.

That history is one of the reasons the deal (a truce in exchange for the rule of sharia) in Swat was made.

When I first took over this job, I sat down with the Pakistanis and said, "You have got to take a look at this Swat deal, it is dangerous." They said, "No, this is not like other arrangements. This is different. It won't fall apart." Well, it did. I think they learned a lesson.

We have said to the Pakistanis, "Look, the threat here is not just to the US and to Afghanistan, it is to Pakistan! They blew up the Marriott Hotel. They are a threat to your security."

If the Pakistanis recognize these groups as a real threat, then we can create the partnership we need. I think they are beginning to. As we speak, there are Pakistani military operations going on against militants in Swat and Buner. The key is not whether they simply bring the tanks in, clear out the Taliban and back out. They have to clear these areas and hold them. That is very important.

After the trilateral summit recently in Washington (with the US, Pakistani and Afghan leaders) we are beginning to more efficiently share intelligence. It is working.

I do sense that (Pakistani) President Zardari realizes he has to do more. I understand that they see a threat from India. But if they don't focus on this threat, it will undermine their stability.