Perhaps laying the groundwork for a more aggressive withdrawal scheme from Afghanistan, newly-installed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Al Qaeda is nearly defeated:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Saturday that the United States is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing the group’s 10 to 20 remaining leaders.
Arriving in Afghanistan for the first time since taking office earlier this month, Panetta said that intelligence uncovered in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May showed that 10 years of U.S. operations against Al Qaeda had left it with fewer than two dozen key operatives, most of whom are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.
“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 kinds of attack on this country,” Panetta told reporters on his way to Afghanistan aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. “That’s why I think” that defeat of Al Qaeda is “within reach,” he added.
Panetta, having overseen the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, finds himself the only Democrat in recent memory with impeccable national security credentials; he even cleared the Senate unanimously, an incredible feat these days. This may provide him–and Obama–the political cover needed to ramp-up the drawdown from Afghanistan, which his predecessor, Bob Gates, declined to do. The defense secretary’s trip continued in Iraq yesterday where he said Iranian weapons were contributing to the escalating campaign of violence against U.S. troops, scheduled to depart in their entirety by the end of the year unless the Iraqi government requests otherwise.