US close to defeating al-Qaeda: Panetta
"I was convinced in my prior capacity (as CIA chief) and I`m convinced in this capacity that 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," Panetta told reporters en route to Kabul, his first overseas trip as the Defense Secretary.
"My goals are to defeat al-Qaeda, that obviously we made an important start with that with getting rid of bin Laden," he said, adding he wants to establish sufficient stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan so that al-Qaeda and its militant allies do not find a safe haven there.
Panetta said the US is within reach to target top al- Qaeda leaders.
"Having gotten bin Laden, we`ve now identified some of the key leadership within al-Qaeda both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas," he said.
"If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning to be able to conduct any kind of attack on this country, but that`s why I think it`s within reach. Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it`s within reach," he said.
"I`m not going to list all the names that we have, you know, but we`re talking about, at this stage of the game, I would say somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders that between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM in North Africa, if we can go after them I think we really can strategically defeat al- Qaeda," he said.
"We were at the point as a result of the operations that we conducted at the CIA as well as the other work that`s been done — I think we had undermined their ability to conduct 9/11-type attacks. I think we had them on the run," Panetta said.
"I think 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-Qaeda as a threat to this country," he said.
Panetta said "the interesting thing that we found with bin Laden is that for a long time the sense was that he was an inspirational leader, but he wasn`t the guy who was managing operations. And what we found out when we went into that compound (in Abbottabad where he was hiding) is that in fact he was someone that was operating on an operational basis. And we`ve been able to, obviously, target that capability."
"More of these team leaders like (Anwar al-) Awlaki, (Ayman al-) Zawahiri, and others that we can go after — the more we undermine those who have an operational capability to work with the Haqqanis, to work with TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan), to work with the other militant groups that threaten our forces and that threaten this country," he said.