BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told U.S. troops Sunday they are "bringing the consequences to the terrorists," but that there was no way of knowing how long it will take to finish the job and find Osama bin Laden.
In the first visit by a top U.S. official into an Afghanistan only recently freed from Taliban rule, Rumsfeld also met with the country's new interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
"We want to be as helpful as we can," to make Afghanistan a stable country inhospitable to terrorists, Rumsfeld said he told Karzai.
Karzai, he said, "is anxious to be cooperative with us in every possible way." Nevertheless, "it's not going to be an easy task."
They met near the former Taliban front lines and under tight security at this airfield outside Kabul, still cluttered with the wreckage of decades of wars including land mines and damaged Soviet MIGs. They sat on folding chairs in a room draped with camouflage, inside a damaged and empty aircraft hangar.
Karzai told Rumsfeld the U.S. military had boosted an Afghan opposition "incapacitated" by years of war. "The way you provided help for us was the opportunity that we wanted," Karzai said.
After the meeting and briefings from U.S. commanders, Rumsfeld stood in the gigantic hangar, the roof damaged by old mortar fire, to shake hands with some of the troops.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Rumsfeld told the soldiers, President Bush was determined "that we let the world know that our country cannot be attacked without consequences -- and you are bringing the consequences to the terrorists."
Yet, he cautioned: "There's no way to know how long it's going to take to find" Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and bin Laden.
Even as Rumsfeld flew around the region, the fighting near Tora Bora was evolving into a chase. Before dusk fell Sunday, the battle that had been fierce the day before, with heavy U.S. bombing, began to slow, Rumsfeld said.
About 2,000 al-Qaida fighters were trying to flee, with opposition troops aided by U.S. special operations forces in pursuit.