Kabul: The "strategic defeat" of al Qaeda is "within reach", US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday as he arrived on a surprise visit to Afghanistan as the US prepares a gradual drawdown of troops.
Panetta, who took office on July 1 to replace the outgoing Robert Gates, arrived in Kabul for a trip to include talks with President Hamid Karzai over the transition of some NATO-held areas to Afghan control starting mid-July.
Ahead of his arrival, Panetta told travelling media that since the May night raid by US forces in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden, "10 to 20" key al Qaeda targets had been identified between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and north Africa.
"If we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat al Qaeda," said Panetta, who leads the Pentagon after two years as CIA chief.
"Obviously we made an important start with that with getting rid of bin Laden. I was convinced in my prior capacity and I`m convinced in this capacity that we`re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda."
"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," he said.
Panetta also pushed Pakistan to do more to help the fight against al Qaeda, amid dismal relations between the US and its uneasy ally in the war on terror.
In particular the United States wanted to see Pakistan go after al Qaeda`s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri who he said is likely living in the country`s northwestern tribal areas.
"He`s one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target," said Panetta.
"We have to continue to emphasise with the Pakistanis that in the end it`s in their interest to be able to go after these targets as well. They`ve given us some cooperation, they`re going after some of these targets, we`ve got to continue to push them to do that."
US-led coalition forces have been fighting a Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan since their invasion in late 2001 in the wake of the September 11 attacks orchestrated by bin Laden.
Panetta said that the near 10-year war in Afghanistan, that has led to the deaths of 1,658 US troops so far and costs the US about $10 billion every month, had been successful in defeating part of the Islamist network.
"We`ve been able to disrupt, dismantle al Qaeda. We`ve been able to in many ways return Afghanistan to itself instead of having the Taliban run that country," he said.
Critics of the war say it has no clear aims, especially since the death of bin Laden, and they have called for a speedier exit from the long conflict.
Seven areas of the country are due to be transferred to overall Afghan control from mid-July, despite widespread scepticism over the ability of national forces to handle security as international forces leave.
On arriving in Afghanistan, Panetta will meet Karzai and defence and interior ministers to discuss "our common objectives on transition, the drawdown, the build up of the ANSF (Afghan forces)", said a senior US official.
Panetta acknowledged that there was "a lot more work to do in terms of being able to transition the responsibility to them".
"The key to success in Afghanistan is the ability to successfully transition to the Afghans," he told reporters.
"That means they have to develop a capable military, a capable police force, capable local militias that are going to be able to maintain stability. That`s the key and that`s the area we`re gonna focus on."
US President Barack Obama has announced that 10,000 US forces will leave Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of September in 2012.
US officers say the withdrawal will begin slowly this summer, with about 800 soldiers in two army units due to depart this month.