U.S. “Within Reach” of Breaking Al-Qaeda, Panetta Says
KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who arrived in Kabul on Saturday, said the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda” and that the American focus had narrowed to capturing or killing 10 to 20 crucial leaders of the terrorist group in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Mr. Panetta, who took over as defense secretary from Robert M. Gates on July 1, made his comments aboard his plane before arriving on an unannounced trip to Afghanistan.
They were Mr. Panetta’s first public remarks in his new post and among the most positive from a senior American national security official about the decade-old war against the terrorist organization, founded by Osama bin Laden, that was responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Panetta, who as director of the Central Intelligence Agency ran the American commando raid that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, said that vanquishing Al Qaeda was one of his most important goals as defense secretary.
“Obviously we made an important start with that in getting rid of Bin Laden,” Mr. Panetta said. “We’re within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda. And I’m hoping to be able to focus on that, working obviously with my prior agency as well.”
Mr. Panetta, who rarely spoke on the record as C.I.A. director but has a more public role now, offered few details to bolster his assessment. But intelligence officials have said that computer files retrieved from Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showed that the organization was in dire need of money and struggling under persistent American drone strikes on its leadership.
“I think now is the moment,” Mr. Panetta said. “I do believe that if we continue this effort, we can really cripple Al Qaeda as a threat to this country.”
Mr. Panetta declined to name most of the Qaeda leaders the United States has identified, but he said many have been on target lists for years. He made clear that two of his top goals were to remove Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s new leader after the death of Bin Laden, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric believed to be hiding in Yemen.
Mr. Panetta, in one of the most specific descriptions from an Obama administration official about Mr. Zawahri’s whereabouts, said that he believed Mr. Zawahri was living in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest frontier. But, he acknowledged, “With these guys you never know. But at least the best intelligence we have is that he’s located somewhere there.”
Mr. Panetta indicated that he had raised the issue of Mr. Zawahri with Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. “One of the last things I did as director of the C.I.A. was to sit down with my counterparts in Pakistan and make clear to them that there are a set of targets that we have,” Mr. Panetta said. “And the more they can help us go after those targets, the more we will have the ability to achieve our goals in Pakistan.”
On who in Pakistan knew about Bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Mr. Panetta said he had “suspicions, but no smoking gun.”
Later, after a meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Mr. Panetta made his first public gaffe as defense secretary: He told reporters that 70,000 American troops would remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014.
His statement was in contradiction to President Obama’s policy, which calls for a withdrawal of 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 and then a gradual withdrawal of 70,000 until almost all American forces are out at the end of 2014. There are now about 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
Senior Pentagon officials quickly corrected Mr. Panetta’s statement and said that he was thinking of the 70,000 American troops that would be in Afghanistan at the end of 2012, not 2014. “There is no daylight between the secretary of defense and the president of the United States,” said Doug Wilson, a Pentagon spokesman. Mr. Panetta had been traveling for 24 hours and had just come from a lengthy dinner with Mr. Karzai.
In his remarks on his plane, Mr. Panetta said there were greater dangers to the United States in Yemen. “There’s no question when you look at what constitutes the biggest threat in terms of attacks on the United States right now, more of that comes from Yemen and people like Awlaki,” he said. He added that in Yemen, “There are a number of operations that are being conducted not only by the Defense Department, but by my former agency to try to focus on going after those targets. I would say that’s one of our top priorities right now.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan — who is leaving Kabul this month to take Mr. Panetta’s place as C.I.A. director in September — told reporters later on Saturday in Kabul that “enormous damage” had been done to Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s northwest frontier but that elements of the organization would exist for some time. “The brand will be out there,” he said.
General Petraeus said that 50 to 100 Qaeda insurgents remained in the remote Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, on the rugged border with Pakistan. A senior Pentagon official said that intelligence showed that before his death, Bin Laden had been examining the possibility of using those provinces as havens for even more Qaeda fighters.