The United States and its allies are within reach of defeating Al Qaeda after killing Osama bin Laden and gaining new insights about the terrorist group's other leading figures, new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday.
The former CIA director offered an upbeat assessment about the prospects for ending Al Qaeda’s threat as he spoke with reporters flying with him on his first visit to Afghanistan since taking over as Pentagon chief July 1.
In the aftermath of the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, the US has determined that eliminating "somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders" of Al Qaeda would cripple the network, Panetta said. Those leaders are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, he added.
"We're within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda," Panetta said, addressing reporters for the first time since succeeding Robert Gates as defense secretary.
"The key is that, having gotten bin Laden, we've now identified some of the key leadership within Al Qaeda, both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas," he said.
"If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack" on the United States. "That's why I think it's within reach. Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it's within reach," Panetta said.
He said the 10 to 20 top terrorist figures now the focus of US efforts include Ayman al-Zawahri, the designator successor to bin Laden as Al Qaeda’s leader.
Panetta said the US believes al-Zawahri is living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan.
The only other name he mentioned was Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen. The US has put him on a kill-or-capture list.
"Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple Al Qaeda as a major threat" to America, he said.
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.
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.