Panetta: Al-Qaida 'In Disarray' : The Two-Way With bin Laden dead, "we have a unique opportunity to make new gains on al-Qaida," he tells the Senate Armed Services Committee as the confirmation hearing on his nomination to be secretary of Defense begins.

Panetta: Al-Qaida 'In Disarray;' Momentum 'Has Shifted' In Afghanistan

"The death of Osama bin Laden is a significant victory in our campaign to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida ... [though it] does not mean we can rest," CIA Director Leon Panetta, who has been nominated to be the next secretary of defense, tells the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Rather," he continues in written responses to questions submitted to him in advance of a confirmation hearing that just opened, "we have a unique opportunity to make new gains on al-Qaida while it is in disarray."

Panetta also tells the committee that in Afghanistan:

"Important gains have been made over the past 18 months, establishing security and Afghan government authority in former Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar, as well as building the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces. Although the gains are fragile and reversible, momentum has shifted to the Afghan Government, and they are on track to begin the transition process by assuming lead security responsibilities in several areas of the country this summer."

As for what he sees as the priorities for the next secretary of defense, Panetta says that:

"We face a number of challenges: first, prevailing in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the to fight against al-Qaida; second, keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations; third, preparing to counter future military threats; fourth, preserving the finest fighting force in the world and taking care of service members and their families; and fifth, continuing the reforms DoD's leadership has initiated which will be crucial in this time of budget constraints."

We'll keep an eye on the confirmation hearing and update this post with more news as it continues.

Update at 11:05 a.m. ET. The Afghan Mission:

The primary mission in Afghanistan now, Panetta just said, is to "provide sufficient stability so that country never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaida" or its allies.

Update at 10:45 a.m. ET. A Line Against Budget Cuts.

The Associated Press leads its story on the early minutes of the hearing with this:

"U.S. senators are warning the man nominated to be the next defense chief to be wary of draconian Pentagon budget cuts, laying down a gauntlet against the $400 billion in national security reductions that President Barack Obama has proposed. Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee tell Leon Panetta the Pentagon must scrutinize the budget for potential efficiencies. But they also say the U.S. cannot afford to slice into the muscle of America's military power."

Update at 10:10 a.m. ET. Panetta Will Fight For The Troops:

In his opening statement, Panetta just said that the most important duty of a defense secretary is to be a "tireless advocate for our troops and their families. ... They put their lives on the line to fight for America and I will just as surely fight for them."