When new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, during a visit to Afghanistan, declared that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida,” some observers scoffed. Wasn’t he just trying to justify the administration’s decision to reduce the number of troops there, as well as capitalize on the killing of Osama bin Laden?

Game over in the war on terror? Hardly, for the obvious reason that Islamic jihadists by no means take their directives exclusively — or even primarily — from al-Qaida. But the crippling of the organization that engineered the 9/11 atrocities and numerous other murderous attacks over the years is nonetheless a milestone worth noting with appreciation.

Not only has al-Qaida been a font of deadly schemes here and around the world, it has provided inspiration to free-floating extremists hatching plans of their own. Driving it to the edge of extinction is a warning to all terrorists: Any spectacular act of violence in this country will provoke the relentless pursuit of those responsible, even if it takes a decade and no matter where you may hide.

Unfortunately, even if al-Qaida is destroyed, the jihadist mentality that it helped to spread will not disappear any time soon. Plots against the U.S. may not be as elaborate or as ambitious as in the group’s heyday, but they will continue.

Al-Qaida may be reeling, but its second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, survives. And the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, led by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who was in contact with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan before his murderous attack at Fort Hood two years ago, remains a scorpion with a deadly sting.

Despite encouraging success against al-Qaida, in other words, the U.S. is in no position to ease up on the pressure now.

The Denver Post (Aug. 3)