While en route from Washington to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Mr. Rumsfeld said the mission’s primary goal is to gather intelligence aiding in the search for Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden, the multi-millionaire suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks, is thought to be hiding in Afghanistan.
“I really believe that before it’s over, it’s not going to be a cruise missile or a bomber that is going to be the determining factor,” Rumsfeld said. “It’s going to be a scrap of information from some person in some country that has been repressed by a dictatorial regime, that’s been sponsoring a terrorist organization, that’s going to provide the kind of information that’s going to enable us to pull this network up by its roots.”
Asked what he knows about bin Laden’s whereabouts, Rumsfeld said, “I have a little bit of a handle, but I don’t have coordinates.”
Saudi Arabia, the strongest U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, is an important stop since the nation could serve as a center for air operations.
Officials in Saudi Arabia have been hesitant to allow U.S. forces to use those air bases for retaliatory strikes. Rumsfeld asserted that his goal was not to get permission from Saudi Arabia to use the bases for strikes against Afghanistan.
“We’re not going to make requests of the Saudi Arabian government.” Rumsfeld said. “We have a long-standing relationship with them.”
Rumsfeld is also scheduled to visit Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan.
The purpose of visiting those countries is to explain to the leaders “that our interest is to create a set of conditions so that we can engage in a sustained effort to combat terrorism,” Rumsfeld said.
Asked about his visit to Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that neighbors Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said that it could provide important intelligence information because “they see the flow of people back and forth across those borders.”
As for those Afghan neighbors providing military aid to the United States, “from a military standpoint, clearly it would be desirable for countries to participate in that,” Rumsfeld said.
President Bush said today that he sent the Secretary of Defense to the Middle East as a display of U.S. resolve.
“People need to be able to look us in the eye and know that when we say that we’re in this for the long run, that we’re going to find terrorists and bring them to justice, we mean it,” Mr. Bush said.
Rumsfeld did not respond to questions about reports that 1,000 troops from the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division were heading toward Afghan neighbors Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke said that several units in that division were on a heightened state of alert, but that they had not been deployed.
So far, U.S. B-52 and B-1 bombers, warships and elite special forces have moved to the Gulf region, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean.