WASHINGTON - Is Osama bin Laden known to be slipping back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, or does the United States have no clue to his whereabouts whatsoever?

Given a chance yesterday to clear away some of the mystery surrounding the hiding place of the world's most wanted terrorist, two Obama administration officials seemed to add to it.

National security adviser James Jones said bin Laden, believed to be hiding in a rugged area of western Pakistan, may be periodically slipping back into Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the United States has lacked good intelligence on bin Laden for a long time, "I think it has been years," and if the United States did know where he was, "we'd go get him."

The failed hunt for bin Laden has been one of the signature frustrations of the global war on terrorism that former President George W. Bush launched after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The explanation given by both the Bush and Obama administrations for not getting bin Laden is that they simply don't know where he is.

Jones, a retired Marine general, spoke of a renewed campaign to capture or kill him.

Bin Laden was sheltered in Afghanistan by Taliban allies while plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. When U.S. forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, bin Laden apparently fled into Pakistan from his mountain redoubt.

Asked on CNN's State of the Union whether the administration has reliable intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts, Jones replied, "The best estimate is that he is somewhere in North Waziristan, sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border."

He did not comment on the intelligence behind that estimate, nor did he cite a time frame for bin Laden's suspected border crossings.

Gates told ABC's This Week that "we don't know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is," although he agreed his likely location is North Waziristan.

That's part of the loosely governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northwest Pakistan where the border with Afghanistan is largely unrecognized. There is little Pakistani government or military control in this remote region.

The United States has targeted North Waziristan and other areas on the Pakistan side of the border with drone-launched missile strikes, killing militants as well as Pakistani civilians. The Pakistani army has undertaken an offensive against Taliban militants in South Waziristan but has not expanded the effort into North Waziristan.

Obama administration officials have often asserted, as did the Bush administration, that they believe bin Laden is being sheltered on the Pakistani side of the border, along with other al-Qaeda leaders. But Jones broke new ground by saying publicly that the al-Qaeda chief may be slipping back into Afghanistan.

Gates said he could not confirm a recent BBC News report that bin Laden was seen in Afghanistan this year.

Gates: No 'Abrupt' Pullback In 2011

Only a "handful" of U.S. troops might leave Afghanistan in July 2011, when a withdrawal is scheduled to begin, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday

"We are not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We are talking about something that will take place over a period of time," Gates said on ABC's This Week.

Obama announced last week that he soon would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 100,000, but

that troops would

start to return home in 18 months.

His decision to set July 2011 as the point when U.S. troops will begin to depart has proved difficult to explain to domestic audiences and allied governments.

Gates said U.S. troops first would be withdrawn from areas where the Taliban poses less of

a threat, mostly in the north. He said U.S. military commanders had reason for optimism that an 18-month surge would work, because they have seen progress in the south where U.S. forces already have been added.

"I think one of the reasons our military leaders are pretty confident is that they've already begun to see changes where the Marines are present in southern Helmand," Gates said.

- Los Angeles Times

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