Pakistani and American officials said Tuesday the hunt for top al-Qaida and Taliban leaders would continue, but acknowledged the trail was cold.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said his forces believed they had nearly hunted down Osama bin Laden about 10 months ago, but had since lost track of him.
“Through interrogation of those who have been captured, the al-Qaida members who were apprehended here, and through technical means there was a time when the dragnet had closed,” Musharraf told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview.
“We thought we knew roughly the area where he possibly could be. That was I think ... not very long (ago), maybe about 10 months back,” said Musharraf, a close ally of the United States.
The BBC quoted Musharraf as saying his forces had since lost track of bin Laden’s possible whereabouts.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he did not have any information on Musharraf's disclosure. But he said bin Laden "remains a high priority just like other al-Qaida leaders."
"He is someone that has been on the run," McClellan said. "We are dismantling the al-Qaida network. We have made important progress, but the war on terrorism continues. And we will stay on the offensive and take the fight to the enemy so we don't have to fight them here at home."
Officials: Bin Laden's role diminished
U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday that they do not disagree with Musharraf’s assessment that bin Laden's trail has gone cold over the past several months.
However, the officials also said that bin Laden no longer has day-to-day operational control over al-Qaida.
Bin Laden acts more like a non-executive chairman of the board rather than the chief executive officer. Similarly, his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also appears to be operating less like a chief operating officer, the officials said.
The role of day-to-day leadership has been filled by Abu Faraj al Libi, the group's operations chief, a Libyan man in his forties long close to bin Laden and successor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom who once served as deputy.
Pakistani officials have placed a $400,000 reward on his capture, mainly because he is viewed as the mastermind of the two failed assassination attempts on Musharraf in December 2003.
However, the officials told NBC News that bin Laden still must approve attacks planned against the United States and the United Kingdom. The officials believe that in planning for such an attack, cell commanders would bring the plan forward through the leadership structure.
Using couriers and trusted intermediaries, the plan would be sent to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, who would go over it and check off what they liked and didn’t like — they might say: “Do A, B, and C but not D.”
The logistics of the attack would then be worked out by the cell commanders. For example, bin Laden might approve an attack on a hotel, but the cell commander would choose which hotel, would arrange for the casing and surveying of security, the timing, etc.
Although the last best information was that bin Laden was in south Waziristan, a western province of Pakistan, that may not be current. According to some accounts, the officials said, he may be staying in one secure place rather than traveling a lot.
U.S. commander plays down failure
Meantime, the new operational commander for U.S. troops in Afghanistan played down the unsuccessful hunt, saying that bolstering the re-emerging government of President Hamid Karzai was their immediate priority.
Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya took command of the 18,000-strong U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan on Tuesday as American troops based in Europe rotate into the country ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September.
"We will continue to focus our energy, number one, on supporting the government of Afghanistan's vision," Kamiya told reporters at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul. "We have the election coming up ... and that will be one of our major focuses."
"The success of this mission should not be predicated upon the amount of fugitives or threat groups we remove," Kamiya said.
"Instead it should be focused on increasing the capacity, increasing the reach of the Afghan central government."
'We will be successful eventually'
Kamiya, the commander of the Vicenza, Italy-based Southern European Task Force (Airborne), relieved Maj. Gen. Eric Olson of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division at a ceremony in an aircraft hangar attended also by the overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno.
Barno, for his part, said at a news conference that there were no leads into bin Laden’s whereabouts.
"We don't know where he is. If we had a good definition we'd obviously have apprehended him," Barno said of the al-Qaida leader, who some analysts suspect may be hiding near the rugged border with Pakistan.
"We will be successful eventually, but it is a very, very difficult challenge given the immensity of the territory involved, the mountainous terrain, the tough weather," Barno said.
Barno, who is also expected to leave Afghanistan soon, suggested that the insurgency maintained by Taliban-led militants since U.S. and allied Afghan forces ousted the hard-line militia in late 2001 was losing steam.
February saw the lowest level of attacks for two years and a mooted reconciliation plan could blunt the challenge from militants further, he said, while cautioning that violence will likely increase as winter fades.
Hunt for foreign fighters
On Sunday, Pakistani officials said the country’s security forces had mounted a search for suspected al-Qaida foreign fighters in a tribal area near the Afghan border. Ten men were detained for questioning.
Last week, Pakistani soldiers killed two foreign al-Qaida suspects.
Pakistani officials say security forces killed or arrested hundreds of al-Qaida foreign fighters and their local supporters in operations in the South Waziristan region last year.
But they say about 100 are still hiding in the mountainous area and that others have moved into the North Waziristan region.