Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is downplaying a newspaper report that suggests the failure to commit U.S. ground forces to hunt Osama bin Laden during the Tora Bora battle in Afghanistan late last year allowed the al-Qaida terrorist leader to escape.
Mr. Rumsfeld concedes it is possible Osama bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area late last year. But he tells reporters at the Pentagon he does not know that for a fact and says there is no evidence to support the notion.
"It is entirely possible that is the case, that he was there, and I would not suggest that he might not have been or that he might not have left. He could still be there," he said. "But there was not any evidence that we had then that would give us a high degree of certainty about it." The Washington Post newspaper reported Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials now believe there is evidence that bin Laden was in a Tora Bora cave complex when the battle there began in December.
The Post says these sources believe the al-Qaida leader slipped away, perhaps aided by corrupt local militias who did not live up to their pledge to seal off the area as U.S. warplanes bombed the terrorist hide-out.
In subsequent U.S. operations in Afghanistan, more U.S. ground forces have been committed to the hunt for fugitive al-Qaida and Taleban fighters than during the Tora Bora offensive.
But Mr. Rumsfeld dismisses the notion that any over-reliance on local Afghan forces in that operation amounted to a major American military failure.
"Did we think they would function exactly the way organized U.S. armed services organized units would function? No," he said. "We knew they would function differently, and we said to ourselves, 'ok, now balance how do we feel about that?' and the answer was 'well we feel pretty good about it. Let us go ahead and use them.' And how did it work out all in all? Well, not bad. The Taleban are gone, the al-Qaida are on the run."
Mr. Rumsfeld says there has been a lot of speculation about bin Laden's whereabouts since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
But he says there has never been any hard, verifiable evidence about his location, otherwise, he suggests, actions would have already been taken to get him.