Panetta: U.S. ‘within reach’ of defeating al-Qaedahttp://www.washingtonpost.com/world/panetta-us-within-reach-of-defeating-al-qaeda/2011/07/09/gIQAvPpG5H_story.html?hpid=z1
KABUL – The United States is “within reach” of defeating al-Qaeda and is targeting 10 to 20 leaders who are key to the terrorist network’s survival, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in his first trip to Afghanistan since taking charge at the Pentagon.
Panetta, who led the CIA until June and oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, strongly endorsed the Obama administration’s increasingly aggressive campaign to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He hinted of more to come, saying he would redouble efforts by the military and the spy agency to work together on counterterrorism missions outside the traditional war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“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 that we can really cripple al-Qaeda as a threat to this country,” he told reporters on his plane en route to Afghanistan.
“I’m convinced,” he added, “that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”
Panetta’s remarks were his first public comments since he became defense secretary July 1 as well as perhaps the most optimistic assessment by the Obama administration regarding the long-running conflict with al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden’s network formally declared war against the United States in 1996 and has outlived many other predictions of its demise. But Panetta argued that the United States’s longtime approach of targeting al-Qaeda’s commanders — a strategy that counterterrorism officials and analysts refer to as “decapitation” — was finally paying dividends.
U.S. officials have said they recovered a huge amount of computerized data about al-Qaeda’s internal communications when they located and killed bin Laden at a Pakistani compound in May. So far, however, hopes that the information would enable the CIA to quickly roll up the rest of the network’s leadership have faded.
A top operational commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reported killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last month. But al-Qaeda has demonstrated a proven ability over the years to replace field commanders like him.
Replacing bin Laden will present al-Qaeda with a much tougher challenge. The Saudi native helped found al-Qaeda more than two decades ago and the network required most of its followers to swear their personal loyalty to him. His longtime deputy and chosen successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon, is considered a divisive figure within the movement.
Panetta said U.S. intelligence officials believe that Zawahiri is hiding in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas near the Afghan border — unlike bin Laden, who spent years holed up in a large compound in Abbottabad, a military garrison town not far from the capital, Islamabad.
For years, Pakistani officials had adamantly denied that bin Laden could have been in their country, fueling U.S. suspicions that Pakistan was, at a minimum, not interested in helping to find him. As a result, the Obama administration deliberately kept the bin Laden raid a secret from the Pakistanis, fearing they might tip him off in advance.
Since then, Panetta said he has personally urged Pakistani intelligence officials to work jointly with the United States to find Zawahiri, along with other senior al-Qaeda figures that he did not name.
“He’s one of those that we’d love to see the Pakistanis target, along with our capabilities as well,” Panetta said in his remarks to reporters on his plane. “We have to continue to emphasize with the Pakistanis that in the end it’s in their interest to be able to go after these targets as well….We’ve got to continue to push them to do that, that’s the key.”
While al-Qaeda’s haven in Pakistan has received renewed attention since bin Laden’s death, Panetta repeated the CIA’s assessment that the network’s affiliate in Yemen has become a more immediate threat to the United States.
Known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based chapter was responsible for planting package bombs on airliners bound for the United States in early 2010 and for training a would-be suicide bomber who flew to Detroit with explosives in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009.
“There’s no question that if you look at what constitutes the biggest threat in terms of attacks on the United States right now, a lot of that comes from Yemen,” Panetta said. “That’s one of our top priorities right now.”
The U.S. government has also been stepping up counterterrorism missions in Somalia, another unstable country in the region, as well as in North Africa.
Panetta’s trip to Afghanistan comes shortly after President Obama’s announcement that he will withdraw 10,000 troops from that country by the end of the year and 23,000 more by September 2012. That will leave about 68,000 U.S. forces in the country, roughly the same level as it was before Obama ordered a “surge” of troops to the war zone in December 2009.
Panetta visited Afghanistan twice as CIA director, but this is his first visit as Pentagon chief.
He was scheduled to meet later Saturday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who took power with the help of the CIA in the aftermath of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion but has been an inconsistent ally since then.
Panetta said he had “a very good relationship” with Karzai, and hoped that a turnover in Obama’s national security team would help improve ties. In addition to Panetta, Obama has named a new military commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, and a new ambassador, Ryan Crocker.
“These are all individuals that have a good understanding of Karzai,” Panetta said. “Hopefully it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we’ve had in the last few years.”