By ELISABETH BUMILLER
July 9, 2011
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 Kabul, the Afghan capital.
They were Mr. Panetta’s first public remarks as defense secretary 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, which 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 one of his goals was to defeat Al Qaeda.
“Obviously we made an important start with that in getting rid of bin Laden,” Mr. Panetta said. “But I was convinced in my capacity 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.”
Mr. Panetta, who rarely spoke on the record as C.I.A. director but has a more public role as defense secretary, offered few details to bolster his statement that Al Qaeda was poised for defeat. 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, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them,” 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 Al Qaeda leaders that the United States has identified but he said many have been on target lists for years. He made clear that two of the top targets are Ayman al-Zawahiri, 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. Zawahiri’s whereabouts, said that he believed that Mr. Zawahiri was living in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest frontier. But he acknowledged that it was an assessment: “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. Zawahiri with Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or the I.S.I. “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, in defeating Al Qaeda.”
On who in Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Mr. Panetta said he had “suspicions but no smoking gun.”
Despite the perils in Pakistan, 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.”
Mr. Panetta is in Afghanistan to meet with American troops and military commanders as well as President Hamid Karzai, who has had a difficult and tumultuous relationship with the United States. Unlike visits by Mr. Gates, Mr. Panetta will not hold a joint news conference with Mr. Karzai, who frequently surprised his American visitors with impolitic statements that required damage control afterward.
Mr. Panetta, who met with Mr. Karzai several times as C.I.A. director, said he was optimistic that things would improve with a new group of American leaders in Kabul. Lt. Gen. John Allen is to succeed Gen. David H. Petraeus as the top military commander this month and Ryan C. Crocker is soon to succeed Karl W. Eikenberry as the ambassador.
“There’s a whole new team that’s going in place in Afghanistan, with General Allen, Ambassador Crocker, myself now as secretary of defense,” Mr. Panetta said. “These are all individuals that have a good understanding of Karzai. And hopefully it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we’ve had over the last few years.”