THE “strategic defeat” of al-Qa’ida is “within reach”, Leon Panetta said as he arrived on a surprise first visit to Afghanistan in his new role as United States defence secretary.
The former CIA chief, who took office on July 1 to replace Robert Gates, arrived in Kabul for a trip including talks with President Hamid Karzai over the transition of some NATO-held areas to Afghan control starting in mid-July.
US President Barack Obama has announced that 10,000 US forces will leave Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of September in 2012, ahead of a full withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014.
Before his arrival, Mr Panetta told travelling media that since the May night raid by US forces in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, 10-20 key al-Qa’ida targets had been identified between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and north Africa.
“If we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat al-Qa’ida,” said Mr Panetta, who leads the Pentagon after two years as head of the CIA.
“Obviously we made an important start with that with getting rid of bin Laden. I was convinced in my prior capacity and I’m convinced in this capacity that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qa’ida.”
“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-Qa’ida,” he said.
General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, later told reporters that there were 50 to 100 al-Qa’ida militants in Afghanistan, mostly in the rugged regions of Kunar and Nuristan.
“There is a small element of al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan,” he said.
“We assess that we have killed their number two and number three over the course of the last 6 to 8 months and we have put enormous pressure on other leaders who are either part of it or affiliated.”
Mr Panetta also pushed Pakistan to do more to help the fight against al-Qa’ida, amid dismal relations between the US and its uneasy ally in the war on terror.
In particular the United States wanted to see Pakistan go after al-Qa’ida’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who he said is likely living in the country’s northwestern tribal areas.
“He’s one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target,” said Mr Panetta.
“We have to continue to emphasise with the Pakistanis that in the end it’s in their interest to be able to go after these targets as well. They’ve given us some cooperation, they’re going after some of these targets, we’ve got to continue to push them to do that.”
US-led coalition forces have been fighting a Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan since their invasion in late 2001 in the wake of the September 11 attacks orchestrated by bin Laden.
Mr Panetta said that the near 10-year war in Afghanistan that has led to the deaths of 1,658 US troops so far and costs the US about $10 billion every month had been successful in defeating part of the Islamist network.
“We’ve been able to disrupt, dismantle al-Qa’ida. We’ve been able to in many ways return Afghanistan to itself instead of having the Taliban run that country,” he said.
Critics of the war say it has no clear aims, especially since the death of bin Laden, and they have called for a speedier exit from the long conflict.
Seven areas of the country are due to be transferred to overall Afghan control from mid-July, despite widespread scepticism over the ability of national forces to handle security as international forces leave.