Panetta: US ‘Within Reach’ of Dismantling al-Qaida

Posted July 9th, 2011 at 5:05 pm (UTC-5)
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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he believes the strategic defeat of al-Qaida is “within reach” after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

During his first trip to Afghanistan since taking over at the Pentagon July 1, Panetta said Saturday the information gained during the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan has resulted in an “active pursuit” of between 10 and 20 terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

The defense secretary singled out al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahri, saying the United States believes he is hiding in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Panetta later met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Panetta said the U.S. intended to keep 70-thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2014.

The Pentagon later clarified his statement, saying there will be a gradual drawdown between 2012 and 2014 of the 70,000 troops that remain.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Doug Wilson, said a plan is still to be developed as to how to do that, but that it will be done in responsible way and with an input and leadership of military commanders.

Panetta also said there is a need for Mr. Karzai and the U.S. to talk about concern or differences privately and not publicly.

While in Afghanistan, Panetta is also scheduled to meet the top U.S. and NATO commander General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

Panetta's recent transition from CIA chief to defense secretary comes at a time of strained relations between the two countries. In June, President Karzai used his final press conference alongside outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates to again voice his strong complaints on civilian casualties reportedly caused during coalition airstrikes.

Panetta also will oversee the start of U.S. President Barack Obama's planned pullout of 10,000 American troops during this year and another 23,000 by the middle of next year.

The pullout comes as critics debate whether Afghanistan is ready to take over its security responsibilities. There have been several major attacks in the capital, Kabul, this year, which is under the supervision of Afghan security forces and at the center of their influence.

In violence Saturday, two NATO service members and one NATO civilian died in two separate insurgent attacks in eastern Afghanistan.