WASHINGTON — The United States has driven al-Qaida into hiding and undermined its leadership, but is struggling to oust its primary sympathizer, the Taliban, from Afghanistan, CIA director Leon Panetta said Sunday.
Panetta's assessment comes as President Barack Obama advances a risky new war plan that relies on 98,000 U.S. troops to prop up the Afghan government and prevent al-Qaida from returning.
"Winning in Afghanistan is having a country that is stable enough to ensure that there is no safe haven for al-Qaida or for a militant Taliban that welcomes al-Qaida," Panetta told ABC's This Week. But he acknowledged that the fight has proved "harder" and "slower than I think anyone anticipated."
He said al-Qaida's evolving attack strategy increasingly relies on operatives without any record of terrorism involvement or those already in the United States. As for Osama bin Laden, Panetta said it's been years since the United States had good intelligence about his whereabouts.
Panetta's remarks came as a suspected CIA missile launched from a drone killed three militants in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's tribal areas where Panetta said al-Qaida is now concentrated. He said there were at most 50 to 100 al-Qaida operatives inside Afghanistan, with the rest hiding along Pakistan's mountainous western border.
At the same time, Panetta offered a less upbeat assessment of the U.S. fight against the Taliban, the anti-U.S. insurgency operating inside Afghanistan.
Asked whether the Taliban has grown stronger since Obama took office, Panetta said the Taliban was more aggressive in "going after our troops."
Information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post was used in this report.
Security contract: Xe Services, to which the CIA gave a $100 million contract to provide security in Afghanistan, underbid others by $26 million and a CIA review concluded that the contractor has cleaned up its act, Panetta said. Guards belonging to Blackwater — Xe's former name — allegedly opened fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad in 2007, killing 17 people. A federal grand jury has indicted five Blackwater officials on conspiracy weapons and obstruction of justice charges.
Iran: CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC's This Week on Sunday that Iran probably has enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons, but that it likely would need two years to build the bombs. There is "some debate" as to whether Iran will proceed with the bomb, he said.
North Korea: The skirmishes involving North Korea will probably not lead to a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula, Panetta said. In the end, the North Koreans "always back away from the brink, and I think they'll do that now," he said.
said to be blocked
Top officials in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans, the Washington Post said it learned from U.S. officials who help Afghan authorities crack down on graft.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar denied investigations had been derailed.
U.S. officials estimate that as much as $1 billion a year is flowing out as part of a massive cash exodus. The money, as first reported in the Washington Post in February, is often carried out in full view of customs officials at Kabul's airport, where such transfers are legal as long as they are declared.
Over the past year, U.S. officials said, Afghan investigators assembled evidence against three Karzai-appointed provincial governors accused of embezzlement or bribery. All three cases were blocked. The interference has persisted despite Karzai's pledge in November during his inaugural address to make fighting corruption a focus of his new term.