Strategic defeat of Qaeda 'within reach'
Kabul - The "strategic defeat" of al-Qaeda is "within reach", Leon Panetta said on Saturday, as he arrived on a surprise first visit to Afghanistan in his new role as US defence secretary.
Former CIA chief Panetta, who took office on July 1 to replace Robert Gates, arrived in Kabul for a trip to include talks with President Hamid Karzai over the transition of some Nato-held areas to Afghan control starting mid-July.
US President Barack Obama has announced that 10 000 US forces will leave Afghanistan this year and another 23 000 by the end of September in 2012, ahead of a full withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014.
Before his arrival, Panetta told travelling media that since the May night raid by US forces in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden, 10-20 key al-Qaeda targets had been identified between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and north Africa.
"If we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat al-Qaeda," said Panetta, who leads the Pentagon after two years as head of the CIA.
"Obviously we made an important start with that with getting rid of bin Laden. I was convinced in my prior capacity and I'm convinced in this capacity that we're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda."
"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," he said.
Panetta also pushed Pakistan to do more to help the fight against al-Qaeda, amid dismal relations between the US and its uneasy ally in the war on terror.
In particular the United States wanted to see Pakistan go after al-Qaeda's new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who he said is likely living in the country's northwestern tribal areas.
"He's one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target," said Panetta.
Critics of the war say it has no clear aims, especially since the death of bin Laden, and they have called for a speedier exit from the long conflict.