The US has driven al-Qaeda into hiding and undermined its leadership, but is struggling to oust its primary sympathizer, the Taliban, from Afghanistan, the US spymaster said on Sunday.
CIA Director Leon Panetta’s assessment comes as US President Barack Obama advances a risky new war plan that relies on 98,000 US troops to prop up the Afghan government and prevent al-Qaeda from returning. No longer overseeing the commander in chief’s mission is General Stanley McChrystal, sacked last week in a stunning shake-up in US military leadership after making critical comments about the White House.
“We’re seeing elements of progress, but this is going to be tough,” Panetta told ABC television’s This Week.
He said al-Qaeda’s evolving attack strategy increasingly relies on operatives without any record of involvement in terrorism or those already in the US. As for Osama bin Laden, Panetta said it’s been years since the US had good intelligence about his whereabouts.
Panetta estimated there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda militants operating inside Afghanistan, with the rest hiding along Pakistan’s mountainous western border. He said US drone strikes and other spy operations have helped to “take down” half of al-Qaeda’s senior leaders.
“We are engaged in the most aggressive operations in the history of the CIA in that part of the world and the result is that we are disrupting their leadership,” Panetta said.
At the same time, Panetta offered a less upbeat assessment of the US fight against the Taliban, the anti-US insurgency operating inside Afghanistan’s borders.
When asked whether the Taliban has grown stronger since Obama took office, Panetta said the Taliban was acting more violent and being more aggressive in “going after our troops,” including its use of roadside bombs.
There is progress, even if it’s “slower than I think anyone anticipated,” he said.
As challenges in Afghanistan remain, the political clock is ticking. Many of Obama’s most ardent Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill have said they question whether more US troops and money can solve the problem.
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said troops should begin pulling out next July, as Obama promised, because the Afghans must get the message that they need to take responsibility for their country.
Levin said he even would like to see a major military operation in Kandahar delayed until more Afghans can join the fight. The Democrat estimated fewer than 9,000 Afghan forces are operating in Kandahar — a fraction of those needed to take control of the southern city known as the Taliban’s spiritual heartland.
“If we want to succeed, the Afghans have got to succeed,” he said.
Other Democrats suggested they are sympathetic to the complexities Obama faces.
The Taliban have “been running these areas for years now and the idea we’re going to walk in and they’re going to run away, I think, was never contemplated,” Senator Jack Reed said “This is a tough fight, unfortunately.”
Republicans said their biggest concern was that next year’s deadline was set in stone. Obama has said troops will begin to pull out then, but that the pace and size of the withdrawal will depend upon conditions on the ground.
Senator Lindsay Graham, who is influential on military matters, said his other major concern is the ailing effort by civilians to improve governance in Afghanistan.