Last Friday, Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld said he was ordering hundreds of U.S. Marines to join Afghan militia in the hunt for bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
Since then, officials decided to limit the presence of American forces in an area where fundamentalist Islamic sentiment runs high. Military strategists argued that large American camps could become prime targets for attacks and there would be likely casualties among troops searching caves.
The decision comes as conflicting reports emerged as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday that there are so many conflicting reports, “I’ve stopped chasing them.
“We hear six, seven, eight, 10, 12 conflicting reports every day,” he said. “We do know of certain knowledge. He is either in Afghanistan or in some other country or dead and we know of certain knowledge that we don’t know which of those happens to be the case.”
One official in Afghanistan’s new interim government said he believes the man blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks is in a border area of Pakistan and protestec by a fundamentalist Islamic group.
The Afghan Defense spokesman said the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a party well connected to Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban militia, was harboring the Saudi fugitive. The JUI helped orchestrate some of the largest pro-Taliban protests in Pakistan after U.S. airstrikes began in October.
An official from the group denied the report. He said the rumor is part of an international conspiracy to “attack Pakistan under the pretext of action against religious organizations.”
Afghan Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said his government does not know where bin Laden is, but repeated his intention to find and punish him.
“Wherever he is, he should be arrested and brought to international justice,” he told Associated Press Television News when he was asked about the report while visiting a Kabul hospital.
Last week, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said he was “reasonably sure” that bin Laden was already dead.
“He’s not in Pakistan, of that we are reasonably sure. But we can’t be 100 percent sure. We have sealed the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Musharraf said.
For now, Rumsfeld said the U.S. goal remains the same.
“We want to stop the terrorist networks in the world, including al-Qaida, but not just al-Qaida. And to do that you have to go after those networks and root them out and, second, you have to go after the countries that harbor them,” he said.