Panetta's real strategy in declaring Al Qaeda's defeat within reach

But here’s a theory for what Panetta’s on about. (Yes, I’m being cheeky in calling this a “doctrine.”) Remember two of the most important aspects of his resume that got him his new job. As White House budget chief under Bill Clinton, he learned how to cut a budget, and as CIA director under Barack Obama, he learned how to hunt al-Qaida. A killing stroke against al-Qaida, goes one counterterrorism argument, requires doing both. And it just so happens to be a very politically convenient argument for the Obama administration.

A forthcoming book from Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst with the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, contends al-Qaida’s primary strategy against the U.S. is economic. Provocative attacks like 9/11 don’t just kill Americans. They goad U.S. leaders into doing counterproductive things like overspending on endless, bloody wars, like Mohammed Ali patiently baiting George Foreman into exhaustion.

Want to actually defeat al-Qaida? Start looking for cheaper, more sustainable counterterrorism. Gartenstein-Ross argues in his Bin Laden’s Legacy for a “nimble, flexible and relatively inexpensive system of homeland defense” and to keep “the battlefield as small and focused as possible.” It’s also a good idea not to overhype the impact of rinky-dink terror plots, as the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center urged last year.

Enter Panetta. Saying that bin Laden’s team is practically through makes it easy to justify drawing down troops in Afghanistan, a war currently costing $120 billion annually, plus whatever’s in the classified “black” budget. It also means that the U.S. can live with practically any outcome in Afghanistan.