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US admits it has no idea of Bin Laden's whereabouts

The United States has no real idea where Osama bin Laden, the al-Qa'ida leader, may be hiding, and has not had the benefit of any substantial intelligence on his possible whereabouts "for years", the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, conceded yesterday.

On Sunday morning talk-shows to defend and explain President Barack Obama's new surge-and-exit strategy for the Afghanistan war, Mr Gates said Bin Laden's capture would remain important to the military effort in the region. But he was quick to admit there had been no recent progress. "The US would go and get Bin Laden if it could gather reliable information on his location," he told ABC News. Asked how long it had been since the US had intelligence reliably to pin-point him, Mr Gates admitted: "I think it's been years."

Just days go, Gordon Brown voiced his own frustration at the continued failure to capture the al-Qa'ida leader while urging Pakistan to do more to try to locate him. Western intelligence continues to think he is hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border, but senior Pakistani politicians and officials said they do not believe he is in their country. "We've got to ask ourselves why, eight years after September the 11th, nobody has been able to spot or detain or get close to Osama bin Laden, nobody's been able to get close to Zawahiri, the No 2 in al-Qa'ida," Mr Brown said.

James Jones, the US National Security Adviser, suggested yesterday that Bin Laden regularly moved around in the mountainous borderlands that many believe to have been his home for the past eight years. "Sometimes [he is] on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side," Mr Jones said. And he added that the US had to ensure Bin Laden was "again on the run or captured or killed".

On another tangent yesterday, senior US officials were scrambling to defend the new Obama strategy, which depends on a temporary insertion of 30,000 additional troops before withdrawal begins in mid-2011, from criticism that it would send militants a message that they need only lie low until American forces depart.

Mr Gates and other top aides to Mr Obama stressed that the deadline will be contingent on conditions on the ground and any handover would be gradual. That date is "not a cliff", said Mr Jones, but "a guide slope". And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: "We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline."