In February 2010, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta found himself before an audience of more than 1,000 intelligence officers in Langley, paying tribute to seven operatives who had been killed in a suicide bombing at a base in eastern Afghanistan. It had been the deadliest single incident for the agency in 25 years.
“We will carry this fight to the enemy,” he said as he mourned those who had fallen in the line of duty. “Our resolve is unbroken, our energy undiminished, and our dedication to each other and to our nation, unshakable.”
On Monday, Panetta found himself in familiar territory, this time as defense secretary, speaking at the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa for the swearing-in of a new commander. Over the weekend, 22 Navy SEALs and eight other American service members had been killed in eastern Afghanistan. It was the deadliest single incident for U.S. forces in the decade-long war.
“We will honor the fallen by showing the world our unyielding determination to press ahead -- to move forward with the hard work that must be done to protect our country,” Panetta said. “As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail this country from our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan.”
At a time of tragedy, the public response in the military and in the intelligence community is one of perseverance, and Panetta, as a central figure in America’s secretive operations overseas, has become an expert practitioner. Now, he finds himself doing so at a time when public support for the war in waning, lawmakers are restive and concerns over defense spending are prompting many to ask what the nation has gotten for its blood and treasure.
At the Pentagon, as was the case at the CIA, Panetta’s counsel has been to plunge ahead.
“We will never stop,” he said Monday. “We will fight on, until we have achieved the final goal of victory over terrorism.”
Since the deaths over the weekend, military officials have sought to fend off suggestions that the crash and other recent high-profile incidents threaten to undermine U.S. assertions of progress in the war. In their view, the crash was a tragedy, but should not be seen as a sign of tactical victory by the insurgents. U.S. forces are still making progress, dislodging the enemy from their safe havens in the south and killing insurgent leaders.
On Monday, neither Adm. Eric Olson, the outgoing commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, nor his successor, Adm. William McRaven, spent much time in their public remarks Monday focusingon the deaths over the weekend, beyond vowing to press on and expressing their condolences to family and friends.
Instead, they spent their time extolling the skills of the nation’s special operators — at once the nation’s “greatest heroes” and yet, by virtue of their work, the “least acknowledged,” as Olson put it.
For Panetta, the deaths in eastern Afghanistan also were a reminder of the bravery of U.S. Special Operations forces. But they were something else, too.
“This is a reminder — a reminder to the American people — that we remain a nation still at war, one that has seen its share of triumph and tragedy.”