U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, speaks with Afghan President… (Pool, Reuters )
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared Saturday that the United States was "within reach" of defeating Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing what he called the group's 10 to 20 remaining leaders.
Heading to Afghanistan for the first time since taking office earlier this month, Panetta said that intelligence uncovered in the American raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in May showed that 10 years of U.S. operations against Al Qaeda had left it with fewer than two dozen key operatives, most of whom are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
"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 kinds of attack on this country," Panetta told reporters on his way to Afghanistan aboard a U.S. Air Force jet, adding that was why he believed the defeat of Al Qaeda to be "within reach."
Panetta's comments were the most detailed recent assessment of Al Qaeda's strength by a senior U.S. official. They come in the wake of President Obama's decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next year and a half, a move that he said was possible in part because of the damage inflicted on Al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Some terrorism experts were skeptical that Al Qaeda has been so weakened that it no longer poses a threat to the U.S. or its allies.
"It is certainly true that Al Qaeda's leadership has been significantly eroded over the past two years," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, but "there is no empirical evidence that either the appeal of its message or the flow of recruits into its ranks has actually diminished."
Nor is a weaker Al Qaeda likely to have much impact on the Afghan insurgency.
The Afghan conflict is driven by homegrown insurgent groups such as the Taliban that do not necessarily rely on assistance from Al Qaeda to carry on their fight against U.S. and NATO troops. Only a relatively small number of fighters directly linked to Al Qaeda are thought to be in Afghanistan, although Taliban offshoots such as the Pakistan-based Haqqani network are thought to have closer links with the organization.
The Taliban movement has a primarily domestic agenda that differs from the global jihad espoused by Al Qaeda, and links between the two groups have loosened considerably in the nearly 10 years since the Taliban gave sanctuary to Bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Panetta, a former California congressman who headed the CIA before being chosen by Obama to replace Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon, did not estimate how long it might take to defeat Al Qaeda, and he acknowledged that it would take "more work."
Panetta said during his confirmation hearings last month that Al Qaeda had been severely damaged, but he has not claimed before that it was nearing defeat. The CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command have kept lists of senior terrorist leaders for years, adding new names as individuals on the list were killed or captured. It was unclear whether Panetta was indicating that the U.S. now believes it is nearing the end of the known militant leaders.
"Now is the moment following the death of 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 threat to this country," he said.
The U.S. believes Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who succeeded Bin Laden as Al Qaeda's top leader, was probably hiding in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the remote and largely ungoverned region along the border with Afghanistan where a stew of militant groups now operates, Panetta said.
But getting help in finding him from Pakistan, which has severely scaled back cooperation with the U.S. on drone strikes and other operations since the Bin Laden raid, could be more difficult than ever.
Before Bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistani officials had for years dismissed U.S. claims that the Saudi militants was hiding in their country. Since the raid, which was undertaken without warning to Islamabad, Pakistan has halted or reduced most joint operations with the U.S.
In one of his last meetings as CIA director, Panetta said, he told the head of Pakistan's intelligence service that the U.S. had a list of targets that it wanted help in pursuing.
Zawahiri "is one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target along with our help," he said. At least one senior Al Qaeda operative, Ilyas Kashmiri, was killed recently in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, a U.S. official said last week.
Panetta said that Yemen — not Pakistan — poses the most potent threat of terrorist attacks on America, from an Al Qaeda offshoot known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.