KABUL, Afghanistan – Usama bin Laden (search) may be hiding in Afghanistan, while followers of the former ruling Taliban (search) who once harbored the Al Qaeda (search) leader appear to be fragmenting, a U.S. commander said Monday.
Col. Gary Cheek, who controls American forces in eastern Afghanistan, told The Associated Press that bin Laden and other key militant leaders could be in his area of responsibility, a swath of the country flanking the rugged Pakistani border.
Cheek said the number of foreign fighters facing his forces was not "significant" and that most operated near the rugged Pakistani frontier, the zone most widely touted as a hiding place for bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri (search).
Forces loyal to Taliban commanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (search), who has joined the ousted militia in vowing to drive out foreign troops, pose a larger military threat than the foreign fighters.
"Leaders like Hekmatyar, Haqqani, bin Laden could possibly be in our region," Cheek said in an e-mailed response to an AP reporter's questions.
He added that any information the military has on them would not be released "for operational reasons."
Three years after the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and try to kill or capture bin Laden, American officials say they do not know where he is.
Meanwhile, a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency rumbles on.
Cheek said insurgent activity in the east had been "sporadic over the past six months and does not appear tied to any specific strategy or agenda."
"It would appear that the Taliban in particular may be fragmenting and that its central core of leadership is unable to direct coordinated actions," he said. "I would guess that there are a lot of things the Taliban and others want to do, but their ability to do those things are limited."
He said most of the leaders he was tracking are local commanders suspected of attacks and bombings.
A roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier Jan. 2 in eastern Kunar province, but Cheek suggested criminal activity was a bigger problem in that region, where Hekmatyar loyalists are believed to find sanctuary among sympathetic villagers.