In his first news conference as secretary of defense, Leon Panetta declared Saturday that al-Qaida may be on the verge of defeat and its days as a terrorist organization may be numbered.
"We're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida," Panetta told reporters traveling with him as he flew in to Afghanistan.
At 40,000 feet aboard a U.S. Air Force E-4B — commonly known as the "Doomsday Plane" — Panetta said the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Special Operations Forces had staggered al-Qaida.
Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time, also said the treasure trove of intelligence collected in the May 2 raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, had revealed the names of up to 20 al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and central Africa.
He also revealed that U.S. intelligence believes that the new head of al-Qaida, the former number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is hiding in Pakistan's FATA region, a largely ungoverned tribal area in western Pakistan.
Panetta said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which is led by the radical American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, was considered the most serious al-Qaida terrorist threat against the United States.
'Now is the moment'
But Panetta believes al-Qaida may be more vulnerable now than ever.
"I think we have undermined their ability to conduct 9/11 type attacks. I think we have them on the run," Panetta declared, citing the success of CIA and U.S. military airstrikes and covert operations.
"I believe now is the moment. Now is the moment to put maximum pressure on them because I do believe if we continue this effort, we can really cripple al-Qaida," he added, signaling what may be an increased U.S. military and CIA campaign against the terrorist network.
When Panetta was sworn in as defense secretary on July 1, he warned that President Barack Obama's call on the Defense Department to come up with $400 billion in reductions over 12 years to help cut the deficit and government debt would be a challenge.
Panetta, in a message to U.S. forces around the world, said that would "require us all to be disciplined in how we manage taxpayer resources," Reuters reported.
"While tough budget choices will need to be made, I do not believe in the false choice between fiscal discipline and a strong national defense. We will all work together to achieve both," Panetta said.
He promised to keep the U.S. military the strongest in the world, despite the fiscal pressures.
"There will be no hollow force on my watch," he said in his message to U.S. forces.
About a third of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by next summer, a faster timetable than U.S. military commanders had recommended.