WASHINGTON – Making the case for more aggressive U.S. pursuit of terrorists outside of Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are lingering in nearby countries, hoping for a chance to sneak back in and seize power.
"They can come right back in the minute you turn your head, so you have to be aggressive in seeing that they don't feel there's an opportunity for them to re-establish themselves," Rumsfeld said Monday in an interview.
"Then you say well, what more aggressive can you do? In Afghanistan, the answer is not much," Rumsfeld said. "We can probably try to find better ways of finding the Al Qaeda who have left Afghanistan."
Pakistan and Yemen have been very cooperative with U.S. efforts to hunt Al Qaeda down, Rumsfeld said, but Iran and Iraq have not. And he expressed fears that Al Qaeda will turn up in Indonesia, "which is a worrisome place."
Rumsfeld spoke to reporters taking part in the National Journalists Roundtable, a forum that promotes increased access between top U.S. officials and black reporters.
Last month, Rumsfeld ordered Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, head of the Special Operations Command, to develop a more aggressive plan to apprehend or kill Al Qaeda terrorists. Holland briefed Rumsfeld about the evolving plan last week.
On Monday, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, presented the latest Pentagon scenario for invading Iraq to President Bush and his foreign advisers.
The United States has been intercepting ships believed to have fugitives or contraband on board, Rumsfeld said. Those searches are being done in the Persian Gulf, around the horn of Africa and in the Mediterranean, but there are no plans to do them globally.
Without revealing specifics, Rumsfeld said the campaign in Afghanistan is now more of a manhunt than a traditional military operation and he wants the skills of U.S. forces brought in line with that duty. The last large-scale military assault of the war was Operation Anaconda, in which troops tried to clean out a section of eastern Afghanistan.
"What we do face are a set of capabilities and technologies and weapons of mass destruction that can cause enormous carnage in our country, and to our forces and friends and allies around the world," Rumsfeld said. "To deal with that, you really have to organize, train and equip to address those kinds of capabilities, instead of just continuing what we were doing at the turn of the century."
When asked about news reports that he has grown impatient with the pursuit of Al Qaeda, Rumsfeld denied being "unhappy with the pace of things" and praised U.S. commanders and forces who have those assignments.
"I can understand why the stories come out, because I am, I suppose, genetically impatient," Rumsfeld said. "If everything were being done absolutely perfectly, I'd probably still be impatient."
Rumsfeld denied that a U.S. attack on Iraq is imminent. But he noted the support Iraq's neighbors gave the United States in the 1991 Gulf War and said this time around, "I think you would find that countries would find a way publicly or privately to be supportive.
"I don't know of anyone I've talked to in the region who would walk across the street to shake Saddam Hussein's hand," Rumsfeld said. "If you sat down with the leadership of any country over there, you'd find they have a very low regard for that fellow. You'd also find they're much smaller countries, and much weaker. ... The little guy in the neighborhood is fairly careful about what he says."
He advocated pre-emptive U.S. military action as a means of fighting terrorism -- "I would use the phrase 'anticipatory self-defense'," he said. He cited as an example the fighting in Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban, and said a similar case could be made with Iraq.
"The responsible thing to do today is to recognize there are states that are terrorist states. There are states that harbor terrorists," Rumsfeld said. "If we lost 3,000 by having people take our aircraft and fly them into buildings, and if we're looking down the road at chemical or biological or nuclear weapons in the hands of these people, then you're talking about losing not 3,000, but 300,000, or a million.
"That is certainly something that people have to talk about, think about," Rumsfeld said. "That's why the Senate is holding hearings. That's why people in the Congress are considering it, that's why people are writing about it in the press."