US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday he believed the strategic defeat of Al Qaeda was within reach, Gulf News reports.
Panetta, on his first trip to Afghanistan since jumping from Langley to the Pentagon on July 1, told reporters in Kabul that Al-Qaeda could be strategically neutralized if the US kills or captures 10-20 of its key leaders. To this end, Panetta said the US had intensified its targeting of the Al-Qaeda leadership in the wake of Osama Bin Laden's
"We're within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaida and I'm hoping to be able to focus on that, working obviously with my prior agency as well," said Panetta, who ran the CIA until the end of June.
"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 Qaida as a threat to [the United States]," he added.
General David Petraeus, who will take over Panetta's old job in September, told reporters he agreed with Panetta's assessment that strategic defeat of al Qaeda was possible.
"There may be elements of Al Qaeda around for some time, and the brand will be out there. The question is whether they can effectively plan and execute strategic attacks," said Petraeus, currently the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan.
Panetta declined to offer a complete set of names of Al Qaeda leaders the US plans to target, but he did single out Ayman al-Zawahiri
, who replaced Bin Laden as Al-Qaeda's top boss, and Anwar Al Awlaki, an American imam who has become a senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Panetta said he believed Zawahiri is living in Pakistan's tribal areas, and "he's one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target."
Zawahiri took Al Qaeda's top job after Ilyas Kashmiri
, broadly considered Al Qaeda's military boss in Central Asia, and a competitor for the group's top job, was killed in a US airstrike in the same region.
"I would say somewhere around 10-20 key leaders that between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM (Al Qaida in the
Islamic Maghreb) in North Africa. Those are, if we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat Al Qaida," Panetta said.
Panetta added the US military and the CIA were engaged in a number of operations
focusing on militants in Yemen. He did not give specifics.