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Leon Panetta: There May Be Fewer Than 50 Al Qaeda Fighters In Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON -- CIA Director Leon Panetta said on Sunday there may be fewer than 50 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, with "no question" that most of the terrorist network is operating from the western tribal region of Pakistan.

Panetta's remarks came as President Barack Obama builds up U.S. forces in Afghanistan to prop up the government and, in his words, "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda." About U.S. 98,000 troops will be in Afghanistan by fall.

Asked by ABC's Jake Tapper to estimate the number of al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, Panetta said, "I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaeda is actually relatively small. At most, we're looking at 50 to 100, maybe less. It's in that vicinity."

Panetta told ABCs' "This Week" that the CIA is heavily focused on killing the al Qaida leadership in Pakistan, and he defended CIA drone strikes against "dead wrong" claims that they violate international law. He said Osama bin Laden is hiding amid the region's rough terrain with "tremendous security around him."

Asked to describe what an American victory would look like in Afghanistan, Panetta said: "Our purpose, our whole mission there, is to make sure that Al Qaeda never finds another safehaven from which to attack this country. That's the fundamental goal of why the United States is there. And the measure of success for us is: do you have an Afghanistan that is stable enough to make sure that never happens."

ABC News notes:

The CIA director said the U.S. is making progress in Afghanistan. "It's harder, it's slower than I think anyone anticipated. But at the same time, we are seeing increasing violence," he told host Jake Tapper.

"Is the strategy the right strategy? We think so," he said. "I think...the key to success or failure is whether the Afghans accept responsibility, are able to deploy an effective army and police force to maintain stability. If they can do that, then I think we're going to be able achieve the kind of progress and the kind of stability that the President is after," Panetta said.

A NATO spokesman also stressed Sunday that military operations to secure vast areas of Afghanistan would not be delayed by the ouster of the top commander in the war and mounting casualties.

NATO and U.S. forces are continuing their work as they await the arrival of new commander Gen. David Petraeus. He is taking over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was ousted by President Barack Obama after he and his aides were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine making disparaging remarks about top Obama administration officials.

There has been concern that the leadership shake-up will further slow a push into the volatile south that has already been delayed by weeks in some areas and months in others. But NATO spokesman Brig. Josef Blotz told reporters in Kabul that the worries are unwarranted and the military is not pausing because of the changes.

"We will not miss a beat in our operations to expand security here in Afghanistan," Blotz said, repeating the assurances of many diplomats in recent days that the change in leadership does not mean a re-evaluation of strategy.

The top American military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, flew to Afghanistan on Saturday to assure President Hamid Karzai that Petraeus would pursue the policies of his predecessor, including efforts to reduce civilian casualties.

Blotz said Petraeus was expected in Kabul in the next seven to 10 days.

Operations appear to be continuing apace, according to NATO statements. Two recent air strikes in the north, east and south killed at least nine militants, including two local Taliban commanders, NATO and Afghan officials said. No civilians were injured, NATO said.

Eight other militants were killed in a NATO-Afghan military operation in eastern Ghazni province, according to Gen. Khail Buz Sherzai, the provincial police chief.

NATO deaths also are climbing daily. A U.S. service member was killed in a bomb attack in the south and two others in a firefight in the east on Sunday, said Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. forces spokesman.

June has become the deadliest month of the war for NATO troops with at least 93 killed, 56 of them American. For U.S. troops, the deadliest month was October 2009, with a toll of 59 dead.

Blotz said the deaths do show that the fight is getting harder in Afghanistan, but said that does not affect NATO's resolve.

"We are in the arena. There is no way out now. We have to stay on. We have to fight this campaign," he said.

Blotz said about 130 middle- to senior-level Taliban insurgents have been killed or captured in the past four months.

But Taliban attacks against those allied with the government or NATO forces have also surged. In the latest such violence, the headmaster of a high school in eastern Ghazni was beheaded by militants on Saturday, the Education Ministry said. A high school in the same district - Qarabagh - was set on fire the same day.

In southern Zabul province Sunday, a roadside bomb attack on a private security company vehicle killed two of those inside and injured three, according to the provincial spokesman, Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar.