During his first trip to Kabul as Pentagon chief, Panetta said he believed the al-Qaida leader was living in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border. The Pakistani military said its troops were already carrying out “intense operations” against al-Qaida and its affiliates as well as “terrorists leadership” and high value targets (HVTs) who pose a threat to Pakistan’s security.
“We expect US intelligence establishment to share available information and actionable intelligence regarding Al Zawahri and other HVTs with us, enabling Pakistan Army to carry out targeted operations,” a military spokesman said.
The former CIA chief said the strategic defeat of al-Qaida was within reach if the United States could kill or capture up to 20 remaining leaders of the core group and its affiliates.
He said these militant leaders were living in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and in North Africa.
Panetta said now was the time — in the wake of bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan in May — to intensify efforts to target al-Qaida leadership, adding that the US would like Pakistan to target Zawahri in the tribal areas.
Pakistan is an important US ally, but relations have been seriously damaged after US Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a secret raid in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad.
The US has also stepped up missile strikes by remotely-piloted drone aircraft in Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal lands, long regarded as a global hub of militants.
US media last month reported that Panetta confronted Pakistan with evidence that militants had vacated bomb-making factories in Waziristan after the US shared intelligence with Pakistan, suggesting that it had tipped off the insurgents. The Pakistan army denied the reports.