By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Recent successes against al Qaeda by the United States and its foreign partners, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, have decimated the group and brought the "demise" of its senior leadership within view, a top White House aide said on Wednesday.
In a speech touting the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policies, White House adviser John Brennan said that "over the past two and a half years" -- the period President Barack Obama has been in office -- more than half of al Qaeda's top leadership "has been eliminated."
In that period, Brennan said, "virtually every major" affiliate of the militant network founded by bin Laden had "lost its key leader or operational commander." Affiliates whose leaders had been killed include Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in East Africa and the Pakistani Taliban, he said.
A series of strikes, including the killing of bin Laden in a commando raid on his hide-out in Pakistan by US Navy SEALs in May, "allows us -- for the first time -- to envision the demise of al Qaeda's top leadership in the coming years," Brennan told the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, a Washington-based branch of Johns Hopkins University.
Top U.S. national security officials are normally loath to make such predictions.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Obama said the United States has been able to "severely cripple al Qaeda's capacities."
"Obviously bin Laden got the most attention, but even before the bin Laden operation we had decimated the middle ranks and some of the upper ranks of al Qaeda," Obama said.
Brennan delivered his speech as the White House released a National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which the administration said was a formal outline of policies to counter militancy that the administration has been developing since Obama took office in January 2009.
Brennan's declaration that the administration's counterterrorism successes go well beyond killing bin Laden comes as Republicans are engaging in increasingly sharp skirmishes with the White House over foreign and economic policy, and Obama and his political rivals are both preparing for next year's presidential election campaign.
Juan Zarate, a former counterterrorism adviser to Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, said that while he was delighted by the current administration's recent successes against militants, "I think everyone admits that the decimation of al Qaeda's leadership and core had been happening for some time" before Obama took office.
Zarate added, however, that in his view there is "no question" that the pace of counterterrorism operations has quickened under Obama, "which is good."
Despite a step-up in the tempo and claimed results of U.S. counterterrorism activities, however, Brennan also insisted that the operations were "exceptionally precise and surgical." Over the last year, Brennan said, "not a single collateral death" had resulted from U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Other experts and officials said that this was an apparent reference by Brennan to clandestine attacks conducted by undercover U.S. military units and by missile-firing drones operated by the CIA that have been directed against militant targets in Pakistani tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan.
During a question-and-answer session, Brennan said that the United States believed that once bin Laden and his entourage installed themselves in the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, where U.S. commandos killed him, the al Qaeda chief did not set foot outside the premises for six years.
Brennan also said in his speech and in response to questions that evidence found by U.S. commandos in the hide-out indicated that bin Laden had called for "more large scale attacks against America," but was advised by al Qaeda commanders in the field that their fighters were just not capable of launching spectacular new attacks like the ones against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)