Donald Rumsfeld has expressed doubts about America's progress in the so-called war on terror, saying the country is in for a "long, hard slog" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an internal memo to senior Pentagon officials, the Defence Secretary cited "mixed results" in the fight against al-Qa'ida and said the US had failed to make any "truly bold moves". He went on to say attempts to transform the Pentagon quickly enough to become efficient at dealing with terrorists rather than a more conventional enemy had proved impossible.
"My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?" he wrote in the memo, dated 16 October. "It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog."
Mr Rumsfeld's comments present a far more stark assessment of American pro-gress in Iraq and in dealing with al-Qa'ida than he makes in public. They are also at odds with the "positive news" campaign President George Bush and his officials has been pursuing in recent weeks to try to persuade the public that progress is being made in Iraq.
In the memo - circulated to his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, General Dick Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Meyer's deputy, General Peter Pace, and Douglas Feith, the under-secretary of Defence for policy - Mr Rumsfeld asked whether the United States was "winning or losing the global war on terror".
In note form, he wrote: "We are having mixed results with al-Qa'ida, although we have put considerable pressure on them - none the less, a great many remain at large. USG [United States Government] has made reasonable progress in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis. USG has made somewhat slower progress tracking down the Taliban - [Taliban leader, Mullah] Omar, etc. With respect to the Ansar Al-Islam, we are just getting started." He also said Washington could not know if it was having more success in countering terrorists than the terrorists were having in recruiting members.
"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," he wrote. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" He added: "Is our current situation such that the harder we work the behinder we get?"
In recent weeks, President Bush has been trying to emphasise positive developments in Iraq and blaming the media for "filtering out" good news. Yesterday, travelling with the President in Australia, his spokesman declined to comment directly on the memo, obtained by USA Today.
But, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Canberra, Mr Bush said: "I've always felt there's a tendency of people to kind of seek a comfort zone and hope the war on terror is over. And I view it as a responsibility of the United States to remind people of our mutual obligations to deal with the terrorists."
Mr Rumsfeld's spokesman, Larry Di Rita, said the memo was meant to raise "big questions that deserve big thinking" and preserve a "constant sense of urgency". He said the memo was one of a series of deliberately provocative questions Mr Rumsfeld regularly presented to senior Pentagon staff.