The U.S. and its allies are within reach of defeating Al Qaeda after killing Usama bin Laden and gaining new insights about the terrorist group's other leading figures, new U.S. 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 a separate interview later, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he agreed with Panetta's assessment.
In the aftermath of the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, the U.S. 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.
In an interview at the main U.S. military headquarters in Kabul, Petraeus said Al Qaeda is on the run.
"There has been enormous damage done to Al Qaeda," beyond the death of bin Laden, in the areas of western Pakistan where the group is believed operating, Petraeus said. "That has very significantly disrupted their efforts and it does hold the prospect of a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling, of Al Qaeda."
Asked how he defines a "strategic defeat" for Al Qaeda, Petraeus said it means that "they can't carry out strategically important attacks."
Petraeus, who is leaving his post this month and succeeding Panetta at the CIA, said there are small numbers of Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. He said the Al Qaeda "brand" is likely to remain a feature of the global terrain, even if the Pakistan-based core of Al Qaeda is unable to carry out large attacks against the West.
Panetta said the 10 to 20 top terrorist figures in Al Qaeda's hierarchy who are now the focus of U.S. efforts include Ayman al-Zawahri, the designator successor to bin Laden as Al Qaeda's leader.
Panetta said the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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.
In Panetta's talks with Petraeus and his successor, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, a central topic was expected to be President Barack Obama's decision on June 22 to withdraw 10,000 U.S. 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.
Offering an overview of the security situation in Afghanistan, Petraeus said he was encouraged that the number of insurgent attacks in June was down slightly from June 2010 and that the trend is holding thus far in July. This contrasts with intelligence analysts' forecast of an 18 percent to 30 percent increase for 2011, he said.
Panetta also intended to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai's mercurial character and frequent public criticism of the U.S.-led international military coalition have soured his relations with many U.S. officials, including the current U.S. ambassador. Karl Eikenberry.
Eikenberry is handing off that post this month to Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who was coaxed out of retirement. Crocker reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban
Panetta said he believes he and Obama's "whole new team" of U.S. 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.
On a lighter note, he said he has gotten a feel for his new job as defense secretary. He compared it to his official aircraft, a towering military version of the Boeing 747.
"It's big, it's complicated, it's filled with sophisticated technology, it's bumpy, but in the end it's the best in the world."