|Panetta declined to offer all the names of the al-Qaeda leadership the US was looking [GALLO/GETTY]
Al-Qaeda's defeat is "within reach," according to Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, who said that eliminating 10 to 20 of the group's top figures could cripple its ability to strike the West.
Panetta, on his first trip to Afghanistan since taking over at the Pentagon on July 1, told reporters before arriving in Kabul that now was the time - in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden in May - to intensify efforts to target al-Qaeda's leadership.
"We're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda and I'm hoping to be able to focus on that, working obviously with my prior agency as well," said Panetta, who ran the CIA until the end of June.
His assessment could stoke the debate in Washington over how soon to pull out the US military from the land where bin Laden's network launched the attacks of September 11, 2001, against the US.
"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 as a threat to [the United States]."
General David Petraeus, who will take over the CIA's top job in September, told reporters that he agreed with Panetta's assessment that strategic defeat of al-Qaeda was possible.
"There may be elements of al-Qaeda around for some time, and the brand will be out there. The question is whether they can effectively plan and execute strategic attacks," said Petraeus, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
There has been enormous damage done to al-Qaeda" beyond bin Laden's killing on May 2 in Pakistan, 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."
More work needed
Panetta declined to offer all the names of the al-Qaeda leadership the US was looking at.
But he singled out two men: Anwar al-Awlaki, an American imam who has become a senior leader of al-Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate, and Ayman al-Zawahri, who replaced bin Laden as the head of al-Qaeda.
Panetta said he believed Zawahri was living in Pakistan's tribal areas, and "he's one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target".
"If we can be successful at going after them,'' he said, referring to the 10 to 20 leaders, "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 US.
"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 he hoped his shift from CIA director to defence secretary, combined with a change of US civilian and military leaders in Kabul, would put the troubled US-Afghan relationship "back on the right track".
There was a hint of concern about resetting the Obama administration's increasingly rocky relationship with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, who frequently criticises the US military and is known to offer what American officials see as weak support for his own fledgling army and police.
The US feels compelled to deal with "a lot of leaders throughout the world who have problems ... and that's the situation here. We have to respect him as president of his country," Panetta said.
Al-Qaeda's attacks of September 11 triggered the US-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. Al-Qaeda affiliates have emerged in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.