“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 this country,” he told reporters on his plane en route to Afghanistan.
“I’m convinced,” he added, “that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”
Panetta’s remarks were his first public comments since he became defense secretary on July 1, as well as perhaps the most optimistic assessment by the Obama administration regarding the long-running conflict with al-Qaeda.
Although the CIA and the U.S. military have assembled lists of al-Qaeda leaders targeted for assassination or capture ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Panetta argued that the longtime strategy of trying to defeat the network by focusing largely on its senior ranks — an approach that analysts refer to as “decapitation” — was finally paying dividends.
His statements about a fading al-Qaeda were echoed shortly after his arrival in Kabul on Saturday by Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus said that the counterterrorism campaign in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, near the Afghan border, had done “enormous damage” to al-Qaeda beyond the killing of bin Laden.
“That has very significantly disrupted their efforts,” Petraeus added, “and it does hold the prospect of really a strategic defeat — if you will, a strategic dismantling of al-Qaeda.” Petraeus is retiring from the Army this summer and is scheduled to take over Panetta’s job as director of the CIA in September.
Bin Laden’s network formally declared war against the United States in 1996 and has outlived many other predictions of its demise. Over the years, the group has demonstrated the discipline and ability to replace dozens of operational commanders responsible for plotting attacks.
“Al-Qaeda’s obituary has been written countless times over the past decade,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor of security studies at Georgetown University. “Each iteration has proved to be ephemeral, as the moment has continually shown itself to have a deeper bench than we imagine.”
“While it is certainly true that al-Qaeda’s leadership has been significantly eroded over the past two years, there is no empirical evidence that either the appeal of its message or the flow of its recruits has actually diminished,” Hoffman added.