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Does bin Laden matter anymore?

In the Pentagon corridors, the 'evil-doer' is no longer the focus - even if most Americans think he's supposed to be.

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Try as he may, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cannot seem to shake the dreaded "OBL" question - even coming from his wife, Joyce.

"Every once in a while ... as I get up about 5 o'clock and get ready to take a shower and head for the office, she says, 'Don, where is he?' " Mr. Rumsfeld told a military gathering last week. "I tell her that if I want to bring up Osama bin Laden, I'll wake her up and bring it up myself," he quipped.

Exactly 146 days after the US military launched its war on terrorism, the man most wanted by President Bush as the "evil-doer" behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks remains at large - a fact that the Pentagon is working hard to downplay.

Most Americans consider tracking down bin Laden as essential for the success of the Afghanistan campaign, recent polls show.

Indeed, a November poll showed that 60 percent of Americans were willing to risk large numbers of casualties among US troops in order to capture or kill bin Laden.

Yet since the US-led siege at the Tora Bora

cave complex in eastern Afghanistan in December turned up no trace of the Al Qaeda terrorist leader, top Pentagon officials have increasingly argued that - alive or dead - he is irrelevant.

"Everybody wants to know where Osama bin Laden is. The next question is, who cares?" says one Defense Department official, reflecting an attitude widespread in Pentagon corridors.

"Osama bin Laden as a center of gravity is gone," he says.

Indeed, a top US military official this week stated that finding the Saudi-born militant is not even one of the top priorities of the US war on terrorism.

"I wouldn't call it [getting bin Laden] a prime mission," said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.

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