Pentagon chief Panetta: US within reach of defeating Al Qaeda
On his first trip to Afghanistan as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta offered an upbeat assessment. "We're within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda," he said.
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Al Qaeda’s attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban government that had sheltered bin Laden. But in the years since, the Taliban has reasserted itself and Al Qaeda has managed to operate from havens in neighboring Pakistan.Skip to next paragraph
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Al Qaeda affiliates have emerged in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. That's led many in the US to argue for a shift from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan to targeting Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and other places.
Asked whether he thought Pakistani authorities knew that bin Laden had been living in their country, Panetta said, "Suspicions, but no smoking gun." The Pakistani government says it did not know bin Laden's whereabouts when Navy SEALs attacked his compound not far from Islamabad.
While in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Panetta planned to meet with US troops and their commanders, including Army Gen. David Petraeus. He will leave his post as the top US commander in Afghanistan this month to succeed Panetta at the CIA. Marine Gen. John R. Allen will replace Petraeus.
A central topic of their discussion is likely to be President Obama's decision on June 22 to withdraw 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan this year and 23,000 more by September 2012. The drawdown is to begin this month, but not all details have been worked out.
Panetta said he also intended to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai's mercurial character and frequent public criticisms of the US-led international military coalition have soured his relations with many US officials, including the current US ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
Eikenberry is handing off that post this month to Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat and former US ambassador to Iraq who was coaxed out of retirement. Crocker reopened the US Embassy in Kabul after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban.
Panetta said he believes he and President Obama's "whole new team" of US leaders in Kabul have a good understanding of Karzai.
"Hopefully, it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we've had over the last few years," he said.