WASHINGTON — America’s war on al-Qaida is taking a new direction, moving beyond declared combat zones like Afghanistan while countering the terrorist network’s search for new sanctuaries, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.

Panetta said the evolving campaign will feature the use of small U.S. strike forces; more partnering with foreign commandos; and more training and other forms of assistance that enable partner nations to combat terrorism on their own.

It also will require that the U.S. and its NATO allies “finish the job right” in Afghanistan, he said, noting that al-Qaida and other extremist groups view the country’s rugged northeast — along the Pakistan border — as a viable haven. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is due to end in December 2014, but Panetta said the U.S. intends to have an enduring presence there.

“All this sends a very simple and very powerful message to al-Qaida, to the Taliban, and to the violent extremist groups who want to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan: We are not going anywhere; our commitment to Afghanistan is long term, and you cannot wait us out,” Panetta said in a speech to the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

But as the war there winds down, al-Qaida is adjusting to the setbacks it has suffered not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in Yemen and Somalia, he said.

“The al-Qaida cancer has also adapted to this pressure by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed,” Panetta said.

“After being left on the sidelines of the momentous change that swept through the Arab world last year, they are now seeking to take advantage of the transition period to gain new sanctuary, to incite violence and to sow instability,” he added.

 

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