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Al Qaeda affiliates have emerged in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. That’s led many in the U.S. to argue for a shift from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan to targeting al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and other places.

Asked whether he thought Pakistani authorities knew that bin Laden had been living in their country, Panetta said, “Suspicions, but no smoking gun.” The Pakistani government says it did not know bin Laden’s whereabouts when Navy SEALs attacked his compound not far from Islamabad.

In Panetta’s talks with Petraeus and his successor, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, a central topic was expected to be President Barack Obama’s decision on June 22 to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year and 23,000 more by September 2012. The drawdown is to begin this month, but not all details have been worked out.

Panetta said he also intended to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai’s mercurial character and frequent public criticisms of the U.S.-led international military coalition have soured his relations with many U.S. officials, including the current U.S. ambassador. Karl Eikenberry.

Eikenberry is handing off that post this month to Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat and former U.S, ambassador to Iraq who was coaxed out of retirement. Crocker reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban

Panetta said he believes he and Obama’s “whole new team” of U.S. leaders in Kabul have a good understanding of Karzai.

“Hopefully, it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we’ve had over the last few years,” he said.

On a lighter note, he said he has gotten a feel for his new job as defense secretary. He compared it to his official aircraft, a towering military version of the Boeing 747.

“It’s big, it’s complicated, it’s filled with sophisticated technology, it’s bumpy, but in the end it’s the best in the world.”