This story was updated at 2:10 p.m. EDT, July 9.

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he is convinced the U.S. is within reach of “strategically” defeating al-Qaida if military and intelligence operations can nab fewer than 20 key leaders remaining between Pakistan and North Africa.

“I think we have them on the run. I think now is the moment,” he said Friday. “… I do believe that if we continue this effort, we can really cripple al-Qaida as a threat to this country.”

Panetta’s remarks are his strongest indication yet that the U.S. was nearing defeat of the terrorist organization nearly 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and two months after the killing of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.

Panetta’s comments came during his first news conference as defense secretary, aboard his plane from Washington to Afghanistan where the former CIA director arrived Saturday.

“One of the things I’ve already had to do was to sign condolence letters to the families,” he said. “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 said the U.S. should maintain “maximum pressure” on military and intelligence operations targeting key leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to terrorist groups like al-Qaida.

“I’m not going to list all the names that we have,” Panetta said of al-Qaida, “but we’re talking about, at this stage in the game, I would say somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders ... between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) in North Africa. Those are — if we can go after them, I think we really can strategically defeat al-Qaida.”

With bin Laden dead, additional targeting operations will further cut al-Qaida’s ability to plan and conduct “any kind of attack on this country. That’s why I think it’s within reach.”

Gen. David Petraeus agreed with Panetta’s assertion about the U.S. effort, in a subsequent interview with reporters in Kabul – his last press roundtable as commanding general. “It does hold the prospect of really a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling of al-Qaida,” he said.

With just 50 to 100 al-Qaida members inside of Afghanistan – a number that has not changed for several years – Petraeus insisted the counterinsurgency must continue to eliminate and hold former safe havens as Afghan security forces transition. “We have good visibility of who leaders of various groups are,” he said, though while it gets murkier identifying their subordinates and numbers of fighters, the estimate still holds at under 100. Some are members of more than one organization, including Taliban, he said, and located in mountainous valleys amid 14,000 to 16,000 foot peaks.

He agreed the hunt for al-Qaida leaders should continue beyond Afghanistan.

“This is a network. It is, if you will, an international terrorist franchise. You must pressure the terrorist network wherever it is,” he said.

Already, Panetta said targeting leaders such as new al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki, has hurt their ability to raise money and strike the United States or deployed forces in Afghanistan.

“The more of these key leaders, like Awlaki, Zawahiri and others that we can go after, the more we undermine those that have an operational capability to work with the Haqqanis, to work with the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan), to work with other militant groups that threaten our forces and that threaten this country.”

Panetta noted one of his last acts as CIA director was to ask his Pakistani counterparts for help with many of those targets inside their borders.

“We think that Zawahiri is one of those that still resides in the FATA,” Panetta said, referring to Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. Previously, U.S. officials have said only that he was believed to be in the country.

“With these guys, you never know, but at least the best intelligence we have is that he’s located somewhere there.”

The secretary acknowledged American skepticism runs high over Pakistan’s willingness to help U.S. efforts, given tense relations since Navy SEALs raided Pakistani territory to kill bin Laden and also widespread suspicion in Washington that Pakistani officials must have helped hide him for years.

Panetta said he, too, had “suspicions, but no smoking gun,” yet noted Pakistan already has helped hunt some targets.

“We’ve got to continue to push them to do that,” he said.

On Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters the U.S. must keep trying to work with Pakistan.

“We are, I believe, suffering now in this relationship because of a choice we made in 1990,” he added, “where we just cut them off. And I think that would be a disaster now, and I think that would be a disaster in the future.”

In addition to the targeting operations already familiar to him at the CIA, Panetta is tasked to oversee President Barack Obama’s draw down of the Afghanistan War — 10,000 troops this year and 23,000 by the end of next summer – and U.S. efforts to begin peace talks with the Taliban. His visit to Afghanistan comes just weeks after the so-called “core group” of U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan diplomats met to ramp up talks aimed at an eventual reconciliation with Taliban fighters.

Panetta indicated he wanted to drive those fighters to the peace table and not let up the fight.

“I think it’s really key to keep the pressure on now in order for us to have half a chance of being able to achieve reconciliation.”

He pointed to U.S. efforts to train Afghan forces and said he is focused on a successful security transition to Afghans.

“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 – that’s the key,” he said.

In his first week on the job, the secretary already has made changes at the top, starting daily morning staff meetings with Mullen; Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and several undersecretaries, with weekly meetings set for the service chiefs.

With the White House and Congress in budget talks, many expect Panetta, former budget chief to President Bill Clinton and chairman of the House Budget Committee, to dive into Obama’s target of finding $400 billion in savings over 12 years. Panetta said he was concerned negotiators would “pick a number and throw it at the Defense Department,” and pledged to determine national security strategy and policy before spending limits.

Twitter: @StripesBaron

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now