KABUL, Afghanistan -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Saturday that the United States is "within reach" of "strategically defeating" al Qaida as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing the group's 10 to 20 remaining leaders.
Heading to 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 Qaida 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's comments were the most detailed recent assessment of al Qaida's strength by a senior U.S. official, and it comes in the wake of President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next year and a half, a move that he said was possible in part because of the damage inflicted on al Qaida and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Panetta, a former California congressman who headed the CIA before being chosen by Obama to replace Robert Gates at the Pentagon, provided no estimate for how long it might take to defeat al Qaida, and he acknowledged that it would take "more work." He was speaking to reporters for the first time since taking over the Pentagon.
Panetta said during his confirmation hearings last month that al Qaida had been severely damaged but he has not claimed before that it was nearing defeat. The CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command have kept lists of senior terrorist leaders for years, adding new names as individuals on the list were killed or captured. It was unclear whether Panetta was indicating that the U.S. now believes it is nearing the end of the known terrorist leaders.
"Now is the moment following the death of bin Laden to put maximum pressure on them because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al Qaida as a threat to this country," he said.
The U.S. believes Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who succeeded bin Laden as al Qaida's top leader, was probably hiding in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the remote and largely ungoverned region along with border with Afghanistan where a stew of militant groups now operates, Panetta said.
But getting help in tracking him down from Pakistan, which has severely scaled back cooperation with the U.S. on drone strikes and other operations since the bin Laden raid, could be harder than ever. Before bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistani officials had for years dismissed U.S. claims that the Saudi terrorists was hiding in their country. Since the raid, which was undertaken without advance warning to Islamabad, Pakistan has halted or reduced most joint operations with the U.S.
Panetta said there were "suspicions but no smoking gun" indicating bin Laden's whereabouts were known to some Pakistani officials but said he was awaiting the results of an investigation by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan's main military intelligence organization.
In one of his last meetings as director of the CIA, Panetta said, he told the head of Pakistan's intelligence service that the U.S. had a list of targets that it wanted help in pursuing.
Zawahiri "is one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target along with our help," adding about Pakistan that "we've got to continue to push them." At least one senior al Qaida operative, Ilyas Kashmiri, was killed recently in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, a U.S. official said last week.
Panetta said that it was from Yemen -- not Pakistan -- that the U.S. faces the most potent threat of terrorist attacks, from an al Qaida offshoot known as al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The group has gained strength in recent months as unrest has swept through Sana, the country's capital, and large swaths of its rugged hinterlands, where militants are growing in strength. The administration last week revealed that it had captured and interrogated Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, an alleged Somali militant with ties to AQAP, on a boat traveling between Yemen and Somalia. The U.S. has also targeted Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen hiding in Yemen, in a drone strike but had missed killing him.
"There's no question that when you look at what constitutes the biggest threat in terms of attacks on the United States, more of that comes from Yemen and from people like Awlaki," Panetta said. "There are a number of operations that are being conducted not only by the Defense Department but by my former agency to try to focus on going after those targets." Panetta was referring to CIA operations in Yemen.
Gen. David Petraeus, who is stepping down as the top commander in Afghanistan this month, echoed Panetta's comments while speaking to reporters later in Kabul.
"There has been enormous damage done to al Qaida in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas ... and it does hold the prospect of really a strategic defeat" of Al Qaeda," he said, noting that the organization's offshoots have suffered substantial setbacks in Iraq. Like Panetta, he warned that the Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen "is the one to keep an eye on now."
A senior military officer said that intelligence recovered in the compound where Bin Laden was killed indicated that he and other Al Qaeda operatives debated at one point whether to relocate to a remote part of eastern Afghanistan if they came under too much pressure in Pakistan. The discussions were "a while back," the officer said, but refused to say what year they occurred.
During his two day visit to Afghanistan, Panetta is meeting with President Hamid Karzai and Petraeus, who is taking over Panetta's old job at the CIA. Panetta arrived in Kabul after a stop at the airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which the U.S. military uses as logistics hub for Afghanistan. He shifted from the Air Force E-4B, the converted 747 used by the Defense secretary, to a C-17, a cargo jet, for the final leg to Afghanistan.
Panetta has been to Afghanistan twice as CIA director.