US Defence Secretary in surprise visit to Kabul, says al-Qaeda defeat "within reach" (UPDATE)
Changes source, adds details of visit (first version posted at 17:54)
US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta planned to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his first visit to Kabul since taking office Saturday, NATO and Afghan officials said, dpa reported.
"I can confirm that US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Afghanistan today for a visit," said Kaye Sweetser, an official with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Karzai's press aide, Seyamak Herawi, said the Afghan president would be meeting Panetta in the evening.
"We will release the detail of meeting later," he said.
US President Barack Obama in June announced a 15-month long drawdown of 33,000 US forces from Afghanistan starting this month.
Around 97,000 US forces, along with 40,000 NATO soldiers, are fighting the Taliban insurgency in a battle that has stretched for almost a decade.
However, the defeat of al-Qaeda was now "within reach," Panetta told reporters during his unannounced visit, the New York Times reported.
"We made an important start with that in getting rid of (Osama) bin Laden," the US daily quoted the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency as saying while on his way to Kabul.
"But I was convinced in my capacity - and I'm convinced in this capacity - that we're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda."
His comments came hours after two NATO soldiers were killed and another injured in a shootout in Afghanistan's northern province of Panjshir.
Bin Laden, the head of the Islamist terrorist organization, was killed by US forces in a raid on his compound in Pakistan at the beginning of May.
Panetta took over as secretary of defence from Robert Gates on July 1.