WASHINGTON -- President Bush says the goal of the Afghanistan campaign is to rout the terror network of Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice ''dead or alive.'' Nearly three weeks into the bombing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says bin Laden is proving tough to catch.
''It's like looking for a needle in a haystack,'' Rumsfeld said Thursday. But he insisted: ''I think we're going to get him.''
Bush has made clear from the start that bin Laden is the No. 1 target. Rumsfeld's comments raised questions about whether that goal is reachable and whether the broader U.S. campaign can succeed.
The Pentagon chief has repeatedly said the effort to find bin Laden and crush terrorism worldwide will be long and difficult. To lower expectations of quick success, he has compared it to the Cold War, which lasted a half-century.
The U.S. has been bombing Afghanistan in an effort to destroy the Taliban's military. It also has sent special operations forces to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of top Taliban leaders, bin Laden and others in his al-Qaida network.
A day before Rumsfeld's remarks, a senior U.S. military officer expressed surprise at the tenacity of the Taliban militia, who protect bin Laden inside Afghanistan.
''They are proven to be tough warriors,'' Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday of the Taliban. ''I am a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging onto power.''
Rumsfeld said he agrees the Taliban are dogged. But he said he's not surprised.
Asked if bin Laden were on the run, Rumsfeld said: ''He went on television not too long ago ... So he's functioning. Does he move? Sure he moves. Have we located him? No -- in a way that allowed us to do anything about it -- no. Are we continuing the effort? You bet. Do we expect to get him? Yes.''
U.S. officials have difficulty obtaining intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts ''sufficiently before the fact'' to strike, the defense secretary said.
The United States has faced that problem before. After two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa, the Clinton administration retaliated with a missile attack in 1998 that hit bin Laden's training camps, reportedly just a few hours after he had left.
Rumsfeld was asked about bin Laden's fate after he was quoted in USA Today saying the United States might not catch bin Laden.
''It's a big world,'' Rumsfeld told the newspaper in Thursday's editions. ''There are lots of countries. He's got a lot of money, he's got a lot of people who support him and I just don't know whether we'll be successful.''
''If he were gone tomorrow, the same problem would exist,'' Rumsfeld said.
U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden has remained in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center that he allegedly masterminded. They worry, though, that he might try to leave for another lawless area, like Chechnya, Somalia or Sudan.
Bin Laden is generally believed to move from cave to cave in Afghanistan's mountains and, before the U.S. bombing, between terrorist camps. Those camps were believed to be mostly empty before the start of the U.S. attack.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he thinks bin Laden eventually will be killed, rather than arrested.
''He is well protected and well armed, and I have always thought it unlikely that he will be turning up in court one day,'' Blair said in an interview published Thursday in The Daily Telegraph of London.
Shortly after the terror attacks, Bush said of the Saudi fugitive: ''If he thinks he can hide and run from the United States and our allies, he will be sorely mistaken.'' Asked later if he wanted bin Laden dead, the president said: ''I want justice. And there's an old poster out west, that I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'''
Statements like that mean ''they have to get him, or it's going to be perceived as a failure,'' said Ivan Eland, a defense analyst at the Cato Institute.
When Rumseld was asked to define success, he said the mission is ''to stop terrorists from terrorizing the world and to stop countries from harboring terrorists.'' And that probably will happen only if Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are captured or killed, he acknowledged.
At the same time, he sought to throw the emphasis off bin Laden.
''What is really important ... is the outcome,'' Rumsfeld said.
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