July 9, 2011 -- The United States is "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today en route to Afghanistan.
"I think now is the moment -- now is the moment 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," Panetta told reporters on board a flight to the war-torn country.
With the killing of Osama bin Laden, U.S. forces recovered a "treasure trove" of intelligence, which Panetta said has allowed U.S. intelligence to identify 10 to 20 key al Qaeda leaders who are based in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
"If we can be successful in going after them I think we can really undermine their ability to be able to do any kind of planning to conduct any kind of attack on this country ... that's why I think it's within reach," Panetta said. "Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it's within reach."
Panetta said he believes al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, is living in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But the al Qaeda branch he is most worried about is in Yemen, run by the American cleric Anwar Al Alwaki.
"I think we have undermined their ability to conduct 9-11 type attacks," Panetta said, referring to his previous role as CIA Director. "I think we have them on the run."
General David Petraeus, who will be moving into Panetta's former job as director of the CIA, agreed with the assessment that al Qaeda is on the run, reinforcing the call to keep pressure on all al Qaeda leaders.
"You have to wack all the moles simultaneously. You have to. This is a network. It is, if you will, an international terrorist franchise. And you must pressure the terrorist network wherever it is," Petraeus said.
Panetta's visit to Afghanistan comes at a time when the Obama administration has just begun the drawdown of 33,000 surge troops by next September.
As CIA Director, Panetta visited Afghanistan four times. He told reporters today that he has met Afghan President Hamid Karzai "a number of times" and "we've always had a good relationship."
He acknowledged there had been problems in the U.S. relationship with Karzai, but said the new team in Afghanistan is aware of that "and hopefully it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than we've had over the past few years."
At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Panetta said he was encouraged by the security improvements in the country though he stressed that greater progress needed to be made to improve the Afghan government's ability to govern the country.
Panetta told reporters today that transitioning successfully to Afghan government control will be key.
"That's the area we have to focus on," he said.
Panetta's surprise visit to Kabul, Afghanistan marks his first tour to the war-ravaged country since assuming his new position a week ago. During his visit, Panetta is expected to meet with some of the 100,000 U.S. troops currently serving in Afghanistan, as well as with top commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"One of the things I've already had to do is sign condolence letters to the families. And it makes me that much more aware of the great responsibility we have to support these men and women and to do everything we can to support their families," he said.