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Leon Panetta talking to U.S. troops in Baghdad Monday / Dod photo

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta didn’t waste anytime on his first overseas trip to declare al Qaeda all but washed up:

We’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda…

The key is that having gotten bin Laden, we’ve now identified some of the key leadership within al Qaeda both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas. And if we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning to be able to conduct any kind of attack on this country, but that’s why I think it’s within reach…

We’re talking about, at this stage of the game, I would say somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders that between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM in North Africa — those are — you know, if we can go after them I think we really can strategically defeat al Qaeda. We were at the point as a result of the operations that we conducted at the CIA as well as, you know, the other work that’s been done — I think we had undermined their ability to conduct 9/11 type attacks.  I think we had them on the run.  I think now is the moment — 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 as a threat to this country.

Speaking of reach, Panetta is stretching further than anyone in the U.S. government in declaring al Qaeda on life support. It’s amazingly good news, if true — and a way, perhaps, for Panetta to take his famous budgetary scalpel to the Pentagon itself.

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