The United States will have to keep up an open-ended drone war against al Qaeda militants in Pakistan and elsewhere to prevent another terror attack on America, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said.
The killing of al Qaeda figures in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with unmanned, robotic aircraft has provoked widespread criticism from human rights groups and some US allies, but Panetta said the US campaign has been effective.
Asked if the CIA “targeted killings” should be curtailed in coming years, Panetta told AFP in an interview on Friday that there was still a need to continue the drone strikes more than a decade since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I think it depends on the nature of the threat that we’re confronting. We are in a war. We’re in a war on terrorism and we’ve been in that war since 9/11.
“The whole purpose of our operations was aimed at those who attacked this country and killed 3,000 innocent people in New York as well as 200 people here at the Pentagon,” said Panetta, who is days away from retiring as Pentagon chief.
Before taking over as defence secretary, Panetta oversaw a dramatic increase in drone raids in Pakistan as head of the CIA from 2009 to 2011.
“It’s been an important part of our operations against al Qaeda, not just in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, in Somalia and I think it ought to continue to be a tool we ought to use where necessary,” he said.
“And also where we can use it in conjunction with other countries that are pursuing the same goal,” said Panetta, citing Yemen’s strong support for drone strikes.
Panetta, who as CIA director presided over the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said the campaign still needed to be regularly reviewed but did not say he favoured turning over the spy agency’s drone war to the military.
“Having said that, we always need to continue to look at it, to make sure we develop the right standards, that we’re abiding by the laws of this country, that we’re doing it in a way that hopefully can be a little more transparent with the American people.”
But he said “to protect this country” it was not enough to have operations carried out openly by the military.
Secret action led by the CIA was also needed “when you got those kinds of operations where, because of the nature of the country you’re in or the nature of the situation you’re dealing with, it’s got to be covert.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2013.
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