- Associated Press - Saturday, July 9, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. and its allies are within reach of defeating al Qaeda after killing Osama bin Laden and gaining new insights about the terrorist group’s other leading figures, new U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday.

The former CIA director offered an upbeat assessment about the prospects for ending al Qaeda’s threat as he spoke with reporters flying with him on his first visit to Afghanistan since taking over as Pentagon chief July 1.

In a separate interview later, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he agreed with Panetta’s assessment.

In the aftermath of the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, the U.S. has determined that eliminating “somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders” of al Qaeda would cripple the network, Panetta said. Those leaders are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, he added.

“We’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda,” Panetta said, addressing reporters for the first time since succeeding Robert Gates as defense secretary.

“The key is that, 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 the United States. “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,” Panetta said.

In an interview at the main U.S. military headquarters in Kabul, Petraeus said al Qaeda is on the run.

“There has been enormous damage done to al Qaeda,” beyond the death of bin Laden, in the areas of western Pakistan where the group is believed operating, Petraeus said. “That has very significantly disrupted their efforts and it does hold the prospect of a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling, of al Qaeda.”

Petraeus, who is leaving his post this month and succeeding Panetta at the CIA, said there are small numbers of al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. He said the al Qaeda “brand” is likely to remain a feature of the global terrain, even if the Pakistan-based core of al Qaeda is unable to carry out large attacks against the West.

Panetta said the 10 to 20 top terrorist figures in al Qaeda’s hierarchy who are now the focus of U.S. efforts include Ayman al-Zawahri, the designator successor to bin Laden as al Qaeda’s leader.

Panetta said the U.S. believes al-Zawahri is living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan.

The only other name he mentioned was Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen. The U.S. has put him on a kill-or-capture list.

“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 we can really cripple al Qaeda as a major threat” to America, he said.

Al Qaeda’s attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban government that had sheltered bin Laden. But in the years since, the Taliban has reasserted itself and al Qaeda has managed to operate from havens in neighboring Pakistan.

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