Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested this past week that fugitive al-Qaida and Taleban leaders Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohamed Omar are probably still somewhere in Afghanistan. His comment came somewhat reluctantly in response to what has become his least favorite question: how goes the hunt for the two men?
He has tried to use humor. He has pleaded for understanding. He has even flashed irritation.
But try as he might, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been unable to avoid what has become the key question of the Afghan war: where are the top two fugitives - al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and Taleban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar.
Mr. Rumsfeld's aversion to the question is now so well known that reporters approach the subject with trepidation. One radio reporter this past week took such an apologetic approach that it even drew laughter from the Defense Secretary himself.
"Mr. Secretary, it's my burden to ask you one of your least favorite questions," he said.
But the questions keep coming - and the subject is no laughing matter. Many analysts suggest the failure of U.S. troops and their Afghan partners to find bin Laden and Mullah Omar has cast a deep shadow over an otherwise successful anti-terrorism operation in Afghanistan.
Mr. Rumsfeld says what he objects to is pursuing the question day-in and day-out in public statements. But he says that does not mean he does not take the hunt itself seriously.
"It seems to me that pursuing this [question] is fruitless - orally; that pursuing them on the ground is worthwhile, and we're doing that. And we've got a lot of people working on it. We've got Afghan people working on it, we've got Americans working on it, we've got other countries, Special Forces working on it, coalition partners on the ground physically doing things. And they are doing a darn good job," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Which is not to say it is an easy job. Mr. Rumsfeld says finding individuals is tough. He notes some hunts for criminals on the FBI's famous "Most Wanted" list have taken years.
"The task we're [talking] about is a difficult one, which is why from the outset we've tried not to personalize this and pretend that the ultimate goal was to capture one or two people. It never has been. The goal has been to deal with terrorism," he said.
But Mr. Rumsfeld appears acutely aware that ultimately the hunt for bin Laden especially must be successful - otherwise there will be lingering worries that bin Laden may be out there somewhere trying to revive al-Qaida's terrorist offensive.
That is why whenever asked the unwelcome question, Mr. Rumsfeld is always certain to sound a confident note.
"Do we want to catch them? You bet. Are we trying to? You bet. Will we eventually? I certainly believe we will," he said.
One problem faced by U.S. officials is that they have been inundated with a seemingly never-ending flow of intelligence tips about bin Laden's whereabouts.
Checking these out takes time and Mr. Rumsfeld has said most of the information, while specific, is wrong.
Nevertheless, he says U.S. officials believe both bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain in Afghanistan. But he concedes the hunt has also taken the hunters to some other, unspecified places as well.
The mystery - and the questioning - continue.