WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It has been years since the United States has had good intelligence on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin laden, although he is thought to be in Pakistan, CIA director Leon Panetta said on Sunday.
He also gave a sobering account of the war in Afghanistan, saying the Taliban seemed to be strengthening with a stepped-up campaign of violence, even as U.S.-led forces undermine the Islamist movement with attacks on its leadership.
Progress is being made in the nearly nine-year-old conflict but “it’s harder, it’s slower than I think anyone anticipated,” Panetta said on ABC’s “This Week” program. He did not directly answer a question about whether the war was being won.
A harsh spotlight was thrown on the U.S. strategy last week when President Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal as his top commander in Afghanistan and replaced him with General David Petraeus.
Now U.S. lawmakers from both parties are demanding more answers about the war’s progress. Some will be putting these questions to Petraeus at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
Not since “the early 2000s” have U.S. officials had “the last precise information about where he (bin Laden) might be located,” Panetta said.
“Since then, it’s been very difficult to get any intelligence on his exact location,” Panetta said. “He is, as is obvious, in very deep hiding ... He’s in an area of the tribal areas of Pakistan.”
Denying the world’s most wanted man safe haven on the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been an aim of Western policy since the September 11 attacks in 2001, when the Taliban in effect spurned a U.S. demand to hand over the al Qaeda chief.
Panetta said the United States still believed it could ultimately “flush out” bin Laden, noting it had already “taken down” more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership.
In recent months, the CIA has ramped up the pace of unmanned drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan, targeting not only high-level al Qaeda and Taliban targets but unknown foot soldiers as well.
Taliban militants, Panetta said, “with regards to some of the directed violence, they seem to be stronger. But the fact is, we are undermining their leadership and that I think is moving in the right direction.”
He said a Taliban leader who was dressed as a woman was killed over the weekend in a military operation.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the war began in late 2001, with the Taliban stepping up suicide bombings and assassinations, particularly in their Kandahar heartland.
Some 80 foreign soldiers have been killed so far in June, making it the deadliest month ever for international forces. More than 300 troops have been killed this year compared with about 520 for all of 2009.
Panetta said the key to success was not just in U.S. and allied efforts but whether Afghan security forces will be able to take over and maintain stability.
“This is not going to be easy,” he said. “It is going to take the Afghan army and police to be able to accept the responsibility that we pass on to them.”
Panetta said he had not seen any firm intelligence that there was a real interest in reconciliation among al Qaeda, the Taliban or the Haqqani network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban.
Editing by John O'Callaghan