Gates uses final press conference to give warning on al Qaeda

New al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri lacks many of Osama bin Laden’s characteristics and will face challenges as head of the terror outfit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

The slain al Qaeda leader “had a charisma” al-Zawahiri lacks, Gates said during his final press briefing as Defense chief. Al Qaeda announced earlier Thursday that the Egyptian-born former doctor would be bin Laden’s permanent replacement.

What’s more, U.S. officials have reason to believe “suspicions” about al-Zawahiri exist within the extremist group because he is from Egypt, Gates said.

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Still, the news that al Qaeda has a new chief should be a “reminder,” Gates said, that al Qaeda “seeks to perpetuate itself” while remaining committed to bin Laden’s initial visions.

For those reasons, the U.S. should “keep after them,” Adm. Michael Mullen, the outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman, added.

Asked about U.S.-Pakistan relations, the duo reiterated their calls for patience because “we need each other,” as Gates said.

The relationship has had “ebbs and flows,” Gates said, noting Pakistani officials feel Washington has abandoned them at least four times in the past.

“It’s a relationship that both sides have had to work on,” Gates said. “It is complicated.”

Mullen again said the Pakistanis are doing some “introspection” after U.S. forces raided bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and left with his body. Washington should give Islamabad “some time and some space” to do that, he added.

If the U.S. severs ties with Islamabad now, it would just be a matter of time before that region “is that much more dangerous,” Mullen said.

“There would be a huge pull for us to return and protect our national interests,” Mullen added.

Additionally, Gates would not say whether the U.S. is winning in Afghanistan, instead using another word: “succeeding.”

“After four and a half years … I’ve learned to avoid loaded words like winning and losing,” he said.

Gates also expressed his appreciation for the Pentagon press corps at the start of the briefing.