New US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday that he believed the strategic defeat of al Qaeda was within reach if the United States could kill or capture up to 20 remaining leaders of the core group and its affiliates, including the head of al Qaeda Ayman al Zawahiri – who, he believed, was living in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Panetta, on his first trip to Afghanistan since taking over at the Pentagon on July 1, told reporters before arriving in Kabul that now was the time — in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden in May — to intensify efforts to target al Qaeda’s leadership.
Panetta declined to divulge all the names of the ‘20 leaders’, but he singled out two men: Anwar al Awlaki, an American imam who has become a senior leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, and Ayman al Zawahiri, who replaced Bin Laden as the head of al Qaeda.
Panetta said he believed Zawahiri was living in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and “he’s one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target”.
“I would say somewhere around 10-20 key leaders between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in North Africa. If we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat al Qaeda,” he said.
Panetta added that the US military and the CIA were engaged in a number of operations focusing on militants in Yemen. He did not give specifics.
“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,” said Panetta, who ran the CIA until the end of June.
“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 (the United States).”
General David Petraeus, who will take over the CIA’s top job in September, told reporters that he agreed with Panetta’s assessment that strategic defeat of al Qaeda was possible.
“There may be elements of al Qaeda around for some time, and the brand will be out there. The question is whether they can effectively plan and execute strategic attacks,” said Petraeus, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan.
Better ties with Karzai?
Panetta’s first trip to Afghanistan as defence secretary comes at a time of growing impatience in the United States with the nearly decade-old war, even as President Barack Obama pushes ahead with plans for a faster-than-expected drawdown.
Critics say the US war strategy is undermined partly by Pakistan’s failure to go after militants.
Panetta acknowledged Pakistani cooperation in going after some militants but added “we’ve got to continue to push (the Pakistanis) to do that”. “That’s the key,” Panetta said.
A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that al Qaeda leaders including Bin Laden had long considered setting up safehaven in parts of Afghanistan if the pressure in Pakistan grew too great—a potential threat that still existed. There are only about 50-100 members of al Qaeda currently believed to be in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2011.