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Panetta: U.S. "within reach" of defeating al Qaeda

Leon Panetta testifies during his confirmation hearing to become Defense Secretary in this June 9, 2011 file photo. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The United States is "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda," Leon Panetta declared, as he traveled to Afghanistan for his first visit there as Secretary of Defense.

Speaking to reporters aboard a government flight to Kabul, Panetta said intelligence gathered during the raid at Osama bin Laden's compound has lead the United States to target 10-20 key al Qaeda leaders.

"If we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat al Qaeda," Panetta said.

The success of the May raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was killed, along with "operations that we conducted at the CIA," has undermined the terror organization's ability to conduct 9/11-type attacks, he added.

"I think we have them on the run," Panetta said. "I think 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 really can cripple al Qaeda as a threat to this country.

"Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it's within reach," Panetta said.

Panetta also said he believes Aymin al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's new commander, is living in the tribal areas of Pakistan, known as the FATA.

Panetta has now been Secretary of Defense Panetta for one week. "One of the things I've already had to do ," he said, "is sign condolence letters to the families. And it makes me that much more aware of the great responsibility we have to support these men and women and to do everything we can to support their families."

Panetta will meet with Afghan President Hamed Karzai in Kabul to discuss U.S. plans to begin drawing down American troops and efforts to build Afghan security forces.

He noted that as CIA Director he had developed a good relationship with Karzai, adding hopefully it can be the beginning of a "much better relationship" than Washington has had with its Afghan ally over the past few years.

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